The Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, waved to crowds of dizzyingly cheering students. He met with Olympic Games officials, economic policymakers and European leaders. He toured a tropical island.
But last month there was a revealing gap in Mr Xi’s busy travel schedule, exposing the predicament Covid is creating in a politically pivotal year in which he hopes to expand his grip on power. He stayed behind the scenes on China’s biggest, most controversial lockdown since the start of the pandemic.
In April, Mr Xi made no public speeches targeting outbreaks in China as the largest city, Shanghai, was closed to quell infections, then Beijing went on the alert after a string of cases. Mr Xi also did not directly address the 25 million Shanghai residents who have been ordered to stay at home for weeks, despite their complaints about scarce food, congested hospitals and confusing zigzags in mass quarantine rules.
“He deliberately wants to keep a certain distance from Shanghai,” said Deng Yuwen, a former Communist Party newspaper editor who now lives in the United States. “No doubt he is doing a lot to fight the pandemic behind the scenes, but of course he does not want to be directly involved in the mess in Shanghai.”
The orders of Mr. Xi are instead passed on to subordinates or summaries of meetings. They have cited his demand to stick to a “dynamically zero Covid” goal: essentially ensuring no cases in a population of 1.4 billion through rigorous mass testing and isolation from infections or close contacts. On Friday, the Communist Party’s Politburo — a council of 25 leaders, including Mr Xi — renewed its commitment to that goal, noting the mounting economic risks posed by Covid and the war in Ukraine.
The outbreaks in Shanghai, Beijing and other cities will test Mr Xi’s acumen and authority at a major Communist Party conference later this year. While he will almost certainly win a groundbreaking third term as the party’s general secretary, Mr Xi also wants to ensure that the leadership is dominated by officials who will defend him and uphold his agenda.
To secure that outcome, Mr Xi wants to demonstrate serene political mastery, and until recently, the zero-covid strategy has been a landmark achievement: an effective, albeit expensive, and generally popular pledge that China will prevent mass disease. and avoid deaths.
After Communist Party officials initially downplayed the virus in early 2020, Mr Xi built China into an epidemiological fortress, stifling infections and protecting the economy while the United States suffered nearly a million Covid deaths.
Now there is no easy way out of that fortress. Xi’s leadership has been so invested in showing that China could handle its own pandemic needs that the government has refrained from introducing foreign-developed mRNA vaccines, which are generally more effective than China’s homegrown vaccines. . China’s vaccination of the elderly has also lagged behind.
Without the necessary defenses, the country could face rising cases that, even with Omicron’s lower virulence, could overwhelm hospitals. But China’s goal to eliminate virtually all cases risks becoming a costly, controversial task with no end in sight if Omicron outbreaks continue to lead to measures freezing entire cities.
“This policy was a demonstration that the government puts the health and well-being of the Chinese people first,” said Patricia Thornton, a professor at Oxford University who studies Chinese politics and society. “That will be a much harder story for Xi Jinping to tell.”
The shutdowns and demands for constant checks and vigilance, especially in Shanghai, have fueled public frustration, exhausted local officials and medical personnel and undermined economic momentum.
While residents have complained about draconian restrictions under China’s previous lockdowns, this time there are more critics and braver, including economists and business leaders, who argue that zero Covid has become unsustainable in the face of the new variant.
“Covid is not the only disease threatening the lives of the public,” Liang Jianzhang, the co-founder of Trip.com Group, a major Chinese travel company, wrote in a recent article in China’s Enterprise News. “Sacrificing everything in pursuit of extreme ‘shock’ measures is not the all-encompassing victory we really need.”
The unexpected turbulence of 2022, including China’s tortuous positioning vis-a-vis Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, is still extremely unlikely to deny Mr Xi a third term. He is China’s most powerful leader in decades, and the anger in Shanghai shows no sign of escalating into a challenge to his rule. In other cities and towns, the acceptance, if not the enthusiasm, for strict controls continues.
“For starters, we did nucleic acid testing every day, so I don’t feel like the Beijing outbreak has changed life in recent days,” said Zhou Yunhong, a pork butcher at a fresh food market in Beijing, who has been checking the daily since January. tests take place.
“I’m not worried about the outbreak in Beijing,” said Li Kun, an egg seller in the same market. “This is the capital. How could they leave ordinary people here hungry?”
But long-term economic damage and social tensions from prolonged shutdowns could soften Mr Xi’s power to gain elite support behind his choices for the next leadership position, said Minxin Pei, a professor at Claremont McKenna College in California who teaches Chinese Chinese medicine. studies politics. Mr Xi is likely to remain dominant no matter what, but dominance can rise or fall incrementally, and the officials around him matter.
“The difference with the zero-covid approach now is that the costs are now visible,” said Professor Pei. “You can’t cover them up.”
Even before the Shanghai crisis, Mr. Xi sounded belligerent. Officials have lately suggested that criticizing Covid policies amounts to disloyalty to Mr Xi, or called wiping out cases “a political duty that takes precedence over all”.
“Innumerable facts tell us that we can only gain respect and initiative if we show the spirit of brave warriors who defeat our enemies face to face in a narrow path, dare to fight and master the battle,” Mr Xi told officials of the party school in early March.
The latest on China: important things to know
Last week, Mr Xi pledged to support China’s growth with an influx of infrastructure spending, and on Friday the Politburo said the government would stabilize the economy and eradicate Covid cases.
“Persisting with dynamic zero, protecting people’s lives and health to the maximum, while minimizing the impact of the pandemic on economic and social development,” read the Xinhua news agency’s summary of the Politburo meeting.
But an increasingly vocal group of Chinese economists and business leaders argue that damage from closures will be harder to heal. Chronic uncertainty about when it will be possible to travel, spend money, buy real estate or invest in business has damaged consumer and business confidence.
The solution, they argue, is to accelerate the roll-out of more vaccines and treatments and ensure that the elderly and other vulnerable groups are vaccinated — providing more flexibility when infections break out.
“The dynamic zero policy we are enforcing is becoming more expensive and increasingly ineffective,” Lu Ting, China’s chief economist at Nomura Holdings, said in a speech last month that was widely shared on Chinese social media.
“After more and more people understand that the economic costs are too high and unsustainable, change will come more easily,” Mr Lu said in a telephone interview.
Easing from scratch Covid may be politically more difficult than some critics assume.
Xi has made the relatively few deaths from Covid in China — nearly 5,000, mostly in the early months of the pandemic — a crux of his argument that the Communist Party is more effective in government than any liberal democracy.
But barely more than half of Chinese people 80 and older have had two vaccinations, and less than 20 percent of people in that age group have received a booster, Zeng Yixin, a deputy minister of the National Health Commission, said last month.
Depending on the death rate used for calculations, fatalities in China from rampant spread of Omicron could be between 100,000 and 840,000, said Yanzhong Huang, senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations. Even smaller-scale deaths can fuel public anger.
“They don’t want to live with the virus, but they have to live with the policies they have,” Mr Huang said in a telephone interview. “It’s a real dilemma.”
Mr Xi seems to bet he can beat the infections in Shanghai and keep China to zero Covid until after the party congress, when some easing is possible. For now, officials are wrapping Mr Xi in lavish propaganda.
During a recent visit to Renmin University in Beijing, Chinese state television continued to follow the hundreds of cheering students. Before the Guangxi region of southern China announced that Mr Xi would be one of its delegates to the party congress, it reported that villagers there were given little red books with Mr Xi’s thoughts — an echo of Mao Zedong’s ” little red book.”
“With Xi Jinping at the helm, he will bring together even more of the majestic power of this era,” Guangxi state news agency Xinhua read of Mr Xi’s selection. Covid was not mentioned.
Keith Bradshercontributed reporting, and Claire Fu and Liu Yi research contributed.