Zero Covid and social control, by Sergi Vicente

Early in the pandemic, China’s sweeping lockdowns and isolation allowed it to cut the chain of infection effectively. When the rest of the world achieved the expected herd immunization with vaccines and modulating restrictions, China decided to insist on the zero covid policy. But, with enough means and alternatives, does it make sense to keep it three years later?

Chinese leaders and official propaganda continue to express themselves in military terms. In the opening speech of the XX. Congress of the Communist Party, Xi Jinping said that “the zero covid policy is a people’s war to prevent the spread of the virus.” It takes a lot of epic to convince the population that today it is still necessary to stay at home if infections are detected and that they must constantly undergo tests. Especially when this population talks with friends and family from all over the world who have not worn a mask for a long time. When confinement saved lives, collective sacrifice was celebrated. When confinement makes life unbearable, sacrifice is questionable to say the least.

The protests do not respond to a drowning due to lack of democracy

The deadly fire in the city of Urumqi has been a trigger. Before being censored on social networks, the cries of neighbors asking for help that did not arrive on time because the building was confined have ignited the conscience of a population saturated with sacrifice. And it should be clarified that the protests of the last days do not respond to a drowning due to a lack of democracy. Comparisons with Tiananmen are tempting, but they are nothing more than an expectation or wish of the West. These days, the protesters were shouting “freedom”, not “democracy”. Despite criticism of the unbearable restrictions, the protesters themselves sang the national anthem, an unequivocal message of support for the Party.

But why keep covid zero? In this sense, another fragment of Xi Jinping’s speech at the congress takes on special relevance. Xi highlighted the removal of “serious hidden dangers” within the Party, just days before a historic concentration of power was envisioned. The congress supposed the effective dissolution of the traditional balances between political families. In the new Standing Committee of the Politburo there are neither representatives of the Shanghai faction and the political heirs of Jiang Zemin, nor of the Youth League of the Party, previously represented by a Hu Jintao, who during that congress was literally set aside first of all the world.

Protest over anti-covid measures in Urumqi, China

THOMAS PETER / Reuters

The congress ended, but it is not unreasonable to think that these “hidden dangers” persist. In this context, restrictive measures facilitate control, they are preventive. Nor can it be ruled out that these counter-powers have played a facilitating role in the protests in order to wear down Xi. In China, it is not strange that there are protests, but that there is a certain relationship or even coordination.

Under normal conditions, control structures throughout China do not allow chain protests. But this is not just any moment, it is the most tense political transition in decades, with interest groups that have lost and others, led by Xi, that have won.

For Xi, covid zero has gone from being a necessary sanitary measure to a convenient excuse to guarantee social order. The current discontent does not seem to prove him right. But most likely, both the zero covid policy and these protests will be history as soon as those hidden powers finally succumb to the new leadership.