China’s COVID policy: Relaxation or chaos?

January 19, 2023

After deep public dissatisfaction with the country's strict controls and mass protests against restrictions, the Chinese regime suddenly relaxed its zero-Covid policy steadfastly held throughout last three years. In this week’s #Forum2000online Chat, Xiao Qiang and Parsifal D’Sola joined journalist Kateřina Procházková, analyst at Sinopsis, a project of the Institute of East Asian Studies at Charles University in Prague, Czechia, to discuss the current situation in China, the significance of the protests and Beijing's actions, and the most likely scenarios. Xiao Qiang is a Research Scientist at the School of Information, UC Berkeley, and the founder and Editor-in-Chief of China Digital Times. Parsifal D’Sola is the CEO of the Andrés Bello Foundation–China Latina America Research Center in Bogotá, Colombia.

According to Xiao Qiang, you will learn that:

  • The COVID control policy failed not only because it has failed in popularity and it has ruined the economy, but also because it practically failed to prevent the Omicron spread in China.
  • The deep discontent and the suffering of the people under the zero COVID policy has been present for a long time in Chinese society. Shanghai’s lockdown for almost 60 days caused huge economic damage and human suffering. This also happened in many other parts of the country, in 2022 particularly. Almost half of China's population have gone through a similar experience.
  • There is an important political factor on top of this public policy: Xi Jinping, in order to secure his power and win his third term as General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, does not want to change anything regarding the control of society.
  • Xi Jinping is not really dealing with a virus. He is dealing with a very effective social control tool in order to consolidate his power. People are suffering for a political decision of one man who wants to be a lifelong dictator in China. The Chinese people have seen this and understand that the ineffective, damaging and brutal policy is the cost of one person’s political ambition and political agenda. The protests and their political messages, among other factors, scared Xi Jinping and the central government.
  • The whole propaganda machine plus the censorship and the external propaganda disinformation, backed by the State’s digital technology, is a fundamental pillar of the Chinese Communist Party's control apparatus. It can be very effective in the context of social economic policies, but it also has limits if the economy is not going well and people suffer.
  • When the COVID policy becomes unpopular, the propaganda does not work anymore. And when the policy changes 180 degrees, the propaganda cannot keep it up. 
  • Xi Jinping may create an external conflict—with Taiwan, for example— or use any other international dispute to shift the attention, galvanize the nationalist sentiment and reconsolidate his power.

According to Parsifal D’Sola, you will learn that:

  • In 2020, when all restrictions began, overall sentiment throughout Chinese society, especially because of the control of information, was positive. The restrictions were well received considering that the alternative was how the West had handled the situation. According to the official narrative, “the United States was allowing people to die and the Chinese state was taking care of its people”.
  • The World Cup, a worldwide event, was maybe “the straw that broke the camel’s back”. People were traveling without masks and mass gatherings were taking place while in China things were getting worse. This time the whole society opposed the policy of the central government.
  • There was an underlying frustration that was gathering momentum over the last years. One of the interesting things about the protests themselves is that they were used as a conduit to express other concerns or grievances of the Chinese people.
  • While the COVID restrictions were the center and the spark of the protests, depending on where you were in China —a university campus, a company, the manufacturing industry—, there were other grievances tied to that issue.
  • One must be cautious when drawing general conclusions about an alleged anti-systemic sentiment of the Chinese population as a whole and it would be hasty to say that the central government has lost control.
  • The 180 degree turn was not only regarding the COVID policy. There is a list of reforms in other fields and a change of tone in the foreign policy.
  • A potential change in the future may come from younger generations, particularly from those in urban areas and born after the 80’s.

This interview was recorded on January 10, 2023.