King Canute rebuked his flattering courtiers by showing them that he could not turn back the tide. China’s leader Xi Jinping appears to believe that he can control the waves of Covid advancing on China. Omicron may prove him wrong. If it does, it may be the first big dent in his prestige and authority.
Covid has been a disaster for the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) reputation abroad. More than its crimes against humanity in Xinjiang, its threats to Taiwan, or the dismantling of Hong Kong’s promised freedoms, its gift of Covid to the world has upset foreigners. Their eyes have been opened to the nature of the CCP by its refusal to cooperate in researching Covid’s origins, its bullying diplomacy over PPE, its gloating about the shortcomings of American or European measures to protect their peoples. Beyond just Covid, it has contributed greatly to a reassessment of policy towards China. But its propaganda has succeeded domestically. That matters more to the CCP.
The CCP’s policy was built on a totalitarian lockdown and surveillance of the population, until such time as an effective vaccine could be invented and injected. Then barriers could come down, borders open.
On one level, the “Zero Covid policy” has worked. Even if the true numbers of deaths and hospitalisations are ten times those claimed, the disease has been well controlled. As an early reaction, the policy was the correct one. A Chinese researcher has calculated that, if China had adopted the West’s less restrictive reaction to Covid, the number of cases would have reached between 280,000 – 637,000 a day depending on whether they adopted the UK or the US strategy. China’s relatively rudimentary medical services would not have coped.
But even before omicron emerged the policy was in trouble. Chinese vaccines are insufficiently effective; the moment draconian lockdowns and surveillance are lifted, in the absence of herd immunity, Covid is likely to take off. And if omicron is as transmissible as it seems, even totalitarian tools may be insufficient to hold back a racing tide.
So the strategy is not working. But the Party cannot admit that, nor can it allow its experts admit it either. Xi is hoisted by his own propaganda petard. Having convinced his people that the CCP’s Covid policy shows the superiority of its best-thing-since-sliced-bread ‘whole process democracy’ over Western systems, and having lauded the brilliance of Chinese science in producing vaccines, he can hardly now say, “Oops, sorry, we got that one wrong.”
There may also be limits to the patience of even the uncomplaining Chinese people. If omicron floods in, will they be angry about two years of now ineffective restrictions? There is a tendency for totalitarians not to release powers and controls imposed for a temporary and acceptable (to the people) reason after the original justification disappears. How will ordinary people react to that? And what about the better-off and better educated? The opiate of the middle-class masses, foreign tourism and education, has been denied them. Will they continue to accept that?
The economy was hitting turbulence before Covid. Things are worse now, although exports have been surprisingly strong. But this cannot last. The disruption of supply chains, sluggish consumption, increased caution by foreign countries in using Chinese technologies and companies are already feeding through into unemployment. A global player like China cannot remain in a semi-closed state.
What is Xi to do? Any Plan B is too difficult, when it involves the infallible admitting to fallibility. The CCP cannot even import foreign vaccines – which anyway could not be produced in sufficient numbers – without revealing to the people that their emperor has no clothes. So Plan A it must be.
This is not healthy for international relations either. China seems intent on continuing to shut itself off from the world to prevent the spread of Covid. Reducing business, academic, governmental, people to people and other exchanges, means that the room for misunderstanding and distrust grows. Domestically, Xi declared a “people’s war” on Covid. CCP propaganda extended that bellicose stance to the global fight against Covid. Instead of transparent cooperation to discover the origins of Covid, instead of open support of the WHO (not least to include Taiwan), instead of working openly with western scientists, the CCP has used the crisis to advance its own narrow interests. It may yet pay a heavy price for politicising the virus.
Charles Parton is an associate fellow at the Council on Geostrategy and RUSI. He spent 22 years of his diplomatic career working in or on China.