After Vladimir Putin’s shooting himself in the foot with his bungled invasion of Ukraine, President Xi Jinping’s sudden lock down of 25 million people in Shanghai looks like an equally ill-conceived, arrogant decision.
Despite the harsh controls, social media accounts have smuggled out signs of dissent and despair at the consequences in the mega-city.
Party officials have been harangued by hungry residents on what would usually be PR-friendly staged inspections. Someone even put an open empty fridge on their balcony to show the desperation of hunger.
Chinese authorities have proven mightily efficient at locking people up, less effective at keeping them fed or providing prescriptions to those sealed in at home.
The pandemic brought out the inner authoritarian in otherwise apparently liberal democratic governments so it was no surprise that Beijing’s Communists led the charge for stringent lockdowns even keeping essential staff like pharmacists at home. But Xi’s affinity for such rigid control measures goes beyond the pandemic hysteria which gripped Western leaders.
At first in early 2020, whatever the cause of the Covid outbreak, China’s combination of a profit-driven economic model inside a system of totalitarian social control seemed equipped to control it. From Wuhan to Whitehall, mandarins all became Chinese overnight.
Yet now, two years on, President Xi’s legitimacy is on the line. Even his dictatorship operates a kind of social contract. If people keep their noses out of politics and applaud on cue, they can get on with their own lives and work.
Now China’s export-orientated economy is stalled by Xi’s obsession with Zero Covid.
To paraphrase Lenin, Xi’s attitude seems to be “Prosperity is good, but control is better”. The Chinese Communist way of handling recurrence of Covid is to inflict recession on its previously booming economy.
This affects all of us. Beyond Shanghai’s famous Bund, countless container ships and cargo vessels are riding at anchor unable to deliver raw materials or take on board export goods. This is an own goal for China’s economy but a hit to global supply chains.
There is Maoist method in Xi’s apparent economic madness. The West in particular is re-orientating itself away from Chinese products. But President Xi’s policies at home seem to be pushing the West to find alternative suppliers.
It is almost as if autarky may be Xi’s new strategic goal. Relying on resource-rich anti-Western states like Russia for raw materials, Xi seems to be turning China inward. He is not abandoning the mixture of Maoism and the market dominant since the early 1980s but maybe he is adopting “Capitalism in one country”.
Xi’s China will promote internal consumption as the engine of growth over foreign trade.
This inward turn risks alienating powerful interest groups inside the Communist Party, not least in Shanghai’s well-connected business elite. In fact, from top to bottom in that mega-trading city, people stand to lose badly from Xi’s control-freak approach to public health and the economy.
Let’s not forget Shanghai’s tradition of revolutionary turbulence. It was the Communist Party’s first stronghold in the 1920s. It gave birth to the most radical groups in the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s. If there is anywhere in China where popular resentment could bubble up into open protest it is Shanghai.
If local Party big wigs, Xi’s rivals, sense that they could use public dissent to undermine his grip on power on the back of a mishandled lockdown, the ingredients for a crisis would fall into place.
Splits in the Party elite are the only way the Communists’ control in China will be challenged effectively. Xi Jinping’s misfiring attempt to use the pandemic to tighten his grip on the country could actually unleash political opposition. Protest can be infectious too.