A few weeks ago, “Zero Covid” was the norm in China. But unprecedented levels of protests and an economy choked by health restrictions have forced President Xi Jinping to do an about-face.
However, the leader has made it his trademark, asserting that by doing so Beijing has made a concession to “population and human lives”.
But the tone changed dramatically on Wednesday, when health officials announced a general easing of anti-Covid restrictions, “in tune with changing times”.
Changing times, but an impatient population: At the end of November, the country was rocked by a wave of angry protests against health measures, with some calling for Xi Jinping to step down.
Jane Duckett, director of the Scottish Center for China Research at the University of Glasgow, said the rallies “probably alarmed leaders and led them to conclude that discontent was growing dangerously.
Deregulation, therefore, is “a response to a changing situation that has appeared to challenge Xi and (the Communist Party) power, and that’s why the response has been swift and strong,” says Steve Chang. , Director of the SOAS China Institute at the University of London.
For Chinese officials, losing face is questionable.
“The party (ruling Communist, editor’s note) is now seeking to capitalize on this shift in public opinion, thereby strengthening its legitimacy in the eyes of the public,” explains AFP Dan Macklin, a Shanghai-based political analyst.
“In short, he wants to be seen as steering a new direction rather than reacting to a wave of discontent.”
Result: Despite rising contamination numbers, officials are now instructed to make a reassuring speech about the virus.
– sudden awakening –
Another important factor in this reversal is China’s poor economic health.
The two pillars of Xi Jinping’s “Chinese Dream” are growth and a certain standard of living for citizens.
But this awakening has proved brutal, with the country heading for its weakest growth in four decades this year.
On Wednesday, alarming new figures were released, showing the lowest level of foreign trade since the start of 2020.
“The economic consequences of the policies that had been in place until then became increasingly visible,” observes Bert Hoffman of the National University of Singapore.
Alan Wu, a professor at Nanjing University’s School of Medicine and a former adviser to the WHO, estimates that this economic downturn – rather than the protests – is the main factor that has pushed China out of “zero Covid”.
“Traditionally, the Chinese government has always been very cautious… it has been slow to make decisions or change policy,” he said.
Officials are relieved that the four-month surge in cases has not led to a peak in hospitals.
“I think it gave the government and the people confidence in (China’s) ability to deal with the virus,” Wu said.
– “politically” –
But changing policy overnight is not without risk.
“There is certainly a danger for the party that people see this as succumbing to public pressure to encourage people to prove more in the future,” Judges Don Macklin said.
“However, I think the government is honestly trying to respond to a change in public opinion, and many people will be grateful for that.”
Mr. For Chang, everything depends on whether or not the Chinese health system is overwhelmed by the expected increase in cases.
“If this happens, it will have a huge negative impact on the reputation of Xi and the party.”
While the timing is “politically opportune,” Singapore-based infectious disease expert Leong Ho Nam notes that winter is not necessarily the best season to ease health restrictions.
“I won’t open the country now. It’s clear we’re picking a bad time,” he says.
Jane Duckett underlines that the authorities “probably calculated that they could manage the transition, control the conversation (around the virus) and control the number of reported deaths.”
“But this is a dangerous moment for the regime.”