China: No exit strategy for zero-COVID, no exit strategy for zero-XI JINPING
A few days out from the biggest political event of the Chinese century and the ruling communist party is blaring out the message that zero-COVID is here, like the virus itself, forever.
At the barest, China it seems, has no plan for any kind of exit from its sensational zero-COVID strategy.
One of China’s top government health advisers has added his voice to the recent chorus of nigh-hysterical statements via official party media that the crazy is here and the crazy is staying at the very least until March next year, following the next national party congress some six months away.
Speaking on the national broadcaster on Wednesday Laing Wannian, the health official in charge of the country’s top team implementing zero-COVID strategy, told CCTV the Chinese people should put away any expectations of a respite from the 360-degree control blitz now gripping every part of daily life.
While all eyes will be on President Xi Jinping at this weekend’s Super Communist Party Jamboree Extravaganza, the General Secretary’s Mao era-style “all-out war” on the pandemic has left the 1.4 billion people living under his sway exhausted and – aside from the occasional public flare-up – compliant to an Orwellian extreme.
State media’s ceaselessly gushing portrayal of Xi Jinping (now the People’s Leader) as the man out in front leading the pandemic fight now has the big man too tightly associated with China’s war on COVID.
The South China Morning Post, quoting ‘political observers’ says any immediate relaxation after the political meetings would undermine Xi’s authority and contradict the claim that China’s response – the strictest in the world – is aimed at putting people’s lives and health first.
As Xi readies himself to mount the stage at The Great Hall of The People in Beijing’s Tian An Men square on Sunday where the 20th National Party Congress is expected to break every party law in the Little Red Book of Norms and grant Xi total control of the Party, People and Country, China is discovering it neither has an exit strategy for zero-COVID and nor for zero-Xi.
And living under both is a bitch.
While forever nemesis Japan throws open the doors to international tourism and the greater part of Asia decouples the last vestiges of closed border policies, China is re-embracing a new and fantastic kind of isolationism, painted in altruism, veiled behind the language of battle vs a relentless and unseen alien foe. The stringent policy has centralised power and surveillance in ways not even conjured by the imagination of Orwell and the like.
The always essential senior China economist at Capital Economics, Julian Evans-Pritchard, is under little doubt about what’s in the post for Xi’s 1.4 billion:
“There is no prospect of China lifting its zero-COVID policy in the near future and it probably won’t happen before the end of 2023. If the leadership did want to transition to living with the virus, it would first have to raise the vaccination rate of China’s elderly which would take several months.
“There is no sign that a determined push to do so is even beginning. Another year of zero-COVID equals another year of depressed consumer activity and a high risk of recurrent large-scale lockdowns.”
Certainly that’s the strongly-worded messaging out of China’s state media which this week sent out an extremely rare hat-trick of commentaries via the party mouthpiece The People’s Daily.
Unlike the government-aligned Xinhua Press office, the People’s Daily comes straight and often unfiltered from the top communist party brass; in this case three straight page 2 editorials under the “Zhong Yin 仲 音” byline.
The clarity, repetition and Mao-era language of conflict are not only surprising, but could even hint at pre-congress schisms within the ruling elite – because if there was going to be debate about about the key issue gripping China (aside from Xi’s third term) then zero-COVID was it.
Now that debate is already settled before the doors have opened.
When Monday to Wednesday in the week leading up to the political event of the century the People’s Daily publishes these corkers: “Strengthen confidence and patience in the current policies for epidemic prevention and control”, “’Dynamic zero’ can be maintained and must be sustained”, and, the piece de resistance “’Lying flat’ [in the face of COVID] is not desirable, lying flat and winning is not possible” – then that chat is done.
That last one – “lying flat” – ie: rolling over and submitting, really makes the point of daring officials (or cadres or ordinary citizens) to disagree with a patriotic duty.
The last few lines:
This profoundly warns us that it is not advisable to just “lie flat,” and “lie to win” is impossible.
Only by resolutely adhering to “dynamic” zero-covid (动态清零) can we avoid the huge losses caused by an out of control epidemic at its worst.
All three editorials – wherein Omicron, (referred to in China as the “Crown” strain) is painted as a malignant, unseen foreign force – don’t even touch on the single reason for the rest of the world choosing to “lay flat” – vaccination.
That’s because China is not even trying.
Their Sinovax has been wildly ineffective and Xi Jinping has refused to import the effective mRNA vaccinations from the big pharma Western companies.
Evans-Pritchard says before China can even contemplate lifting zero-COVID, someone’s got to address the low vaccination rate of China’s most vulnerable people.
“And there doesn’t appear to be any urgency about that.”
According to Capital Economics, the critical measure here is vaccine coverage among the elderly since they are at much greater risk.
The last time the government published a detailed breakdown of vaccination rates by age, in late July, only 61% of those aged 80 and above had received two jabs.
And only 38% of over-80s had received a booster.
Referring to the exposed quandry of China’s ageing population, Pritchard-Evans points out that the People’s Daily commentaries only use this to emphasise why the “dynamic zero” of relentless testing, movement control, snap lockdowns and enforced quarantines should continue.
“Not to argue for a vaccination push.”
“It is striking that in a country with draconian lockdowns and quarantine rules, there is still no vaccine mandate. Beijing’s municipal government announced one in July but reversed course a day later after a public backlash. If the leadership were contemplating reopening in the next few months, it would surely be increasing incentives and shifting the messaging to encourage the unvaccinated elderly to get covered.”
According to the always amazing China media Project, the Mao era revolutionary phrase “persistence is victory,” seldom used in the reform era, reemerged back in mid-March as a means of signalling strict and resolute adherence to Xi’s new zero-COVID life.
Evans-Pritchard says the uncompromising messaging raises the obvious question of whether Xi Jinping and his soon to be confirmed leadership buds ever intend give zero-COVID up.
China’s ‘traffic light’, app which enforces the draconian zero-COVID lifestyle is constantly being updated and finessed to gradually tighten political, social and moral controls on the population.
None but the most frail are exempt from the National Health Code System.
The app assigns a user a colour code: green, yellow or red to signify Covid infection risk. At the moment a COVID test every three days means you can go to the shop. Red means instant quarantine.
The app hoovers up personal information information harvesting online behavioural and location data. The precise way people are categorised is a mystery, the party’s unfettered access is not.
“Successive more virulent strains are making ‘dynamic zero’ harder to maintain.” Evans-Pritchard says.
“The main challenge is convincing many elderly people to get any kind of jab. China’s history of vaccine safety scandals has made many wary.
“A vaccination rate of 95% or higher for over-80s, on a par with the successful openers (see table below) won’t be reached in China at least until the second half of next year unless the vaccination campaign accelerates substantially very soon. Winter is not a good time to test the healthcare system’s ability to cope.
“On that basis, we don’t expect meaningful relaxation before 2024.”