BEIJING: China's sudden announcement of relaxing the "Zero-Covid" is because President Xi Jinping believed that this policy was weakening the economy excessively, James Stent writes in Nikkei Asia. According to the author, the Communist Party realized that major economic and social distress would fracture the social contract if the country remains under the zero covid policy. And as a result, the zero COVID policy was jettisoned.
Author James Stent is the author of "China's Banking Transformation: The Untold Story" and a former director of China Everbright Bank. After the covid outbreak, Xi locked all the borders and imposed his draconian "zero-covid" policy. In the early times, the policy was praised by various countries and even received appreciation from its citizen but it all changed in mid-2021, according to Nikkei Asia.
But by mid-2021, the rest of the world was learning to live with the virus, while China remained stuck in its zero-COVID policy. As the more contagious but less virulent omicron variant spread late that year, the government doubled down on severe lockdowns, exacting a high toll in reduced economic growth, strained local government budgets, small business failures, devastated service industry and youth unemployment. Zero COVID was not sustainable, yet through the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party in October, Xi insisted that Beijing would stay the course. But after he won a third term as party leader at the conclave and anti-lockdown street protests erupted in Shanghai and other cities, zero COVID was abruptly dropped. Mass testing ceased, lockdowns ended and officials said the virus was no longer dangerous.
The author also noted that the protest could also be the reason as the protests had alarmed the leadership before the October meeting, but only a small portion of urban residents took part. Hundreds of millions of rural villagers were less affected by COVID lockdowns. They remain basically loyal to the party, which has dramatically improved their lives, reported Nikkei Asia. The white-paper protests are hardly comparable with the 1989 Tiananmen student protests. Those occurred amid a comparatively open intellectual atmosphere and frequently expressed demands for fundamental political change. And with the removal of the zero-covid policy, the scope for public debate has narrowed.
The recent protests focused primarily on zero COVID. By ending the policy and invoking the formidable surveillance and control capabilities of the state, the authorities swiftly ended the protests. Now, no one can challenge Xi. Beijing can blame incompetent local officials for problems during the unwinding of zero COVID. Given Xi's intolerance of dissent, the strength of his position and his commitment to China's authoritarian system, it is doubtful that any protests over the next few years will pose a threat to party control of the nation. The present moderation is a tactical retreat, not a change in the fundamental character of Xi's rule, reported Nikkei Asia.
According to local media, earlier, looking at the covid cases, on December 15-16, CCP convened the annual meeting of China's Central Economic Work Conference to discuss the impact of the Covid pandemic on the country's economy and to formulate guidelines/policies for accelerating the economic growth. President Xi Jinping, in his address at the Conference, stressed that Chinese big tech companies should effectively contribute to bolstering economic growth by creating employment opportunities and promoting exports. Significantly, Li Qiang, the second-ranking Politburo Member of the CCP and a close confidant of President Xi, also addressed the Conference, which was indicative that he is emerging as one of the probable candidates for the post of Premier in 2023.
As part of efforts to consolidate China's growing economic and military strength to mount a challenge to President Xi Jinping has repeatedly been advising the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leaders and officials to strengthen their skills/abilities and reinvent themselves in line with the changing global environment. Accordingly, while addressing the 'democratic life meeting' (December 26-27, 2022) of the CCP's Politburo, President Xi Jinping exhorted the Party leaders to continuously enhance their ability for promoting high-quality development. He further underlined that there was a need to "make up for the deficiencies in knowledge as well as the shortcomings in ability and experiences".
President Xi also stressed that the participants should strengthen their learning skills and become experts in their domain while adapting to the changing work environment, according to local media.