Maybe Xi Jinping decided to abandon “COVID zero” following last month’s Party congress.
He’s going to lead China for the remainder of his life, so he doesn’t have anything to lose from letting COVID run loose. In fact, given simmering discontent with never-ending lockdowns, adopting a less onerous approach to virus control would almost surely improve his standing with the public. Not that it matters. It’s not a popularity contest. It’s not as if he can be voted out of office.
And therein lies the sometimes baffling quandary for outside observers. The public’s patience with draconian virus containment measures is running very thin. Nobody wants mass death, but my guess is that a reliable, scientific, nationwide poll (if you could somehow conduct such a thing in China) would overwhelming show that Chinese people are ready and willing to accept the same trade off the rest of humanity accepted last year: The price of normality is a concession that COVID is endemic and not controllable. Some people are going to die from it. But, unlike Q1 2020, no one worries that everyone might die from it, and in locales where the mRNA vaccines are prevalent, no one under, say, 70, worries much about it at all.
The point here is straightforward: Xi wore “COVID zero” like a badge of honor into the Party congress, despite the distinct possibility that nobody other than him still thought it was a strategy worth pursuing. It’s possible this isn’t a quandary at all. Xi might’ve simply stuck with the strategy for so long, that he thought abandoning it would be seen as a sign of weakness. If that’s the case, he needn’t have worried. Substantially everyone in a country of 1.4 billion is scared to death of him. The idea that joining the rest of the world in “living with COVID” (an ironically unfortunate euphemism for accepting that some people will in fact not live with COVID) would’ve made him appear vulnerable to the hopelessly oppressed masses is ludicrous.
What’s not so ludicrous, though, is the idea that if the Party doesn’t abandon “COVID zero” sometime relatively soon, Xi could be left staring at a meaningful groundswell of societal unrest. That’s anathema to the Party. On Wednesday, workers at the recently locked down iPhone plant in Zhengzhou got into a scuffle with authorities clad in the white hazmat suits the world has come to identify with Xi’s virus control efforts. Bloomberg described the episode:
Workers at the Foxconn Technology Group plant streamed out of dormitories in the early hours of Wednesday, jostling and pushing past the white-clad guards they vastly outnumbered, according to videos sent by a witness to portions of the protest. Several white-suited people pummeled a person lying on the ground with sticks in another clip. Onlookers yelled “fight, fight!” as throngs of people forced their way past barricades. At one point, several surrounded an occupied police car and began rocking the vehicle while screaming incoherently.
While readily acknowledging that none of this is actually funny, if you know anything about the Party’s distaste for outward displays of public disaffection, it’s difficult to read that without chuckling not at the workers and not at the “white-suited people,” but rather at how aghast and disgusted top Party officials must’ve been upon seeing footage of the spectacle.
I can’t emphasize this enough: Irritable iPhone assemblers surrounding police cars and trying to tip them over while “screaming incoherently” as onlookers shout “Fight! Fight!” is to the Party what bad oysters are to you and me: A catalyst for crippling nausea and extreme intestinal discomfort.
Apparently, Wednesday’s fracas was motivated in part by anger over unpaid wages (some workers chanted “Give us our pay!”), but the virus curbs are the proximate cause of the angst. For example, one flashpoint involves worker complaints that the healthy are being forced to share rooms with their COVID-infected fellows. Effectively, the plant is a cruise ship from the early days of the pandemic — a self-enclosed incubator where people are trapped in close proximity to the pathogen.
In a Wednesday statement, Foxconn insisted it made good on its contracts with workers, and said it isn’t true that new workers are compelled to share living quarters with infected staff. The plant was expected to be back at full production capacity late this month. The protests (or, more aptly, the discontent among new recruits the violence reflected) may mean that target isn’t achievable. Earlier this month, Apple cut its outlook for high-end iPhones due to virus protocol in Zhengzhou.
The so-called “closed-loop” system, which isolates workers from the outside world, sparked concerns over food shortages and inadequate medical care in October, prompting some workers to flee the factory (or “escape,” if you like). That, in turn, forced Foxconn to offer more generous pay to entice new workers.
In a message to Reuters, China Labour Bulletin, a Hong Kong-based advocacy group, said that, “It’s now evident that closed-loop production in Foxconn only helps in preventing COVID from spreading to the city, but does nothing (if not make it even worse) for the workers in the factory.”
For its part, Foxconn said Wednesday that, “Regarding any violence, the company will continue to communicate with employees and the government to prevent similar incidents from happening again.”
This is totally untenable. On one hand, Xi has asked (instructed) local officials to take a more measured approach to lockdowns in the interest of balancing economic concerns with public health. That’s part and parcel of the Party’s new 20-point plan. On the other, the same officials are understandably terrified that failing to curb outbreaks could anger Xi, leading to disciplinary actions — or worse.
China continues to report near record local COVID cases, suggesting top officials are, in fact, prepared to abide more transmission (otherwise, they’d just lie about the numbers). Macquarie’s Chief China Economist Larry Hu said this week that the latest daily case counts show China might’ve “already passed the point of no return, as it’s unlikely to achieve zero COVID again without another Shanghai-style hard lockdown.”
I don’t think another Shanghai-style hard lockdown is feasible without chancing additional unrest. One way or another, “COVID zero” has to go. Xi won’t countenance scenes like that witnessed Wednesday in Zhengzhou. To put it bluntly: He’d sooner kill a few people to make the point than he would risk conveying any sort of tolerance for physical confrontations between citizens and officials.
Let’s be clear: People are going to die either way. If the lockdowns come back, Chinese citizens will be at risk from psychological distress, inadequate provision of daily necessities and, in an extreme scenario, a deadly, Iran-style government crackdown on widespread protests. If the lockdowns don’t come back, people are going to die from COVID. This is an unfortunate situation, but, again, the rest of the world (including, by the way, plenty of autocracies), accepted it a long time ago.
Finally (and this goes without saying), companies like Apple need to get out of China. Sure, that seems an impossible ask, and thereby an asinine suggestion. Indeed, I lampooned such suggestions during the Trump administration. By now, though, Xi has proven himself to be an unreliable business partner. At some point, sooner or later, Xi will irrevocably ostracize himself from the democratic world, either through violent crackdowns on domestic dissent, through more attempts to wipe away the cultural heritage of ethnic minorities in Xinjiang, through a conquest of Taiwan or through something else.
Contrary to any counter-narrative, the worsening relations between Xi’s China and the West can no longer be blamed on US foreign policy. Placing blame with both sides was plausible until Xi began to make it clear that he intends to preside as something akin to a supreme leader over an outwardly aggressive, internally oppressive, totalitarian state. The West may not be able to do without China. But we’re going to have to try.