Unsurprisingly, we are seeing Shanghai — well known for its targeted and flexible approach to the pandemic — now turning to draconian measures to control the virus.
The new directive — which apparently was instructed by President Xi Jinping — favors heavy-handed pandemic control measures, such as mass PCR testing, forced quarantines and city-wide lockdowns.
It marks a new chapter in China’s zero-Covid policy which began two years ago, after the situation was brought under control in Wuhan. In order to secure what China had achieved, while buying time for mass vaccination, it has relied on mass testing and aggressive contact tracing to identify new cases and their close contacts for isolation and quarantine, before resetting local cases to zero.
Until last summer, that strategy proved successful in sustaining an extremely low level of infection. But it began to face problems with the spread of the Delta variant. The arrival of the Omicron wave this spring makes such an elimination strategy even less feasible.
In late March, the government began to tweak the strategy by approving rapid antigen test kits at home and issuing new guidelines that no longer require the hospitalization of asymptomatic or mild cases.
Now, the renewed emphasis on zero-Covid also reinforces the perverse incentive structure in China’s political hierarchy.
With power concentrated in the pinnacle of the system, local government officials concerned about their career advancement rush to jump onto the policy bandwagon of zero-Covid — demonstrating their loyalty to Xi and his favored policy agenda.
The incentive becomes much stronger for the politically ambitious who covet a seat in the Chinese Communist Party Central Committee, or, even better, the all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee, where reshuffle is to occur in this year’s 20th Party Congress. Xi is believed to be seeking an unprecedented third term, contrary to longstanding limits on the longevity of the party secretary’s power.
Epidemiologically, by shielding the population from the virus and making vaccination a back-burner issue, China would sustain its huge immunity gap with the rest of the world — which paradoxically also makes the exit from zero-Covid harder to justify. Instead of living with the virus, Chinese people may have to live with an extremely costly policy.
What he did not foresee is that weighing of the cost and benefits of the policy is now highly politicized. Under China’s performance-based legitimacy, pivoting away from zero-Covid due to the high socioeconomic cost would undermine Xi’s personal leadership right at the moment he is seeking a third term. And he has tied his personal interest to the policy.
The party, and Xi himself, have benefited greatly from curbing the spread of the virus within China despite the initial mishandling of the Wuhan outbreak.
With the political stakes so high, the tremendous cost associated with the policy becomes a secondary concern, and zero-Covid becomes a by-all-means and at-all-cost approach.