How did China manage to enforce a Zero Covid Policy (ZCP) for as long as it did? In December 2019, thousands of people in Wuhan rushed to leave the city in order to avoid the lockdown that the authorities had announced. Publicly available data, as compiled by worldometers.info make it hard to believe that China, with a population of 1.4 billion had recorded only 5,242 deaths vs Japan’s 53,730, India’s 530,677, Hong Kong’s 11,243, Singapore’s 1,710, or Australia’s 16,712.
Chinese official statements would suggest that the country’s low body-count is the result of a quickly implemented, draconian “zero covid policy” (ZCP).
This is not the place to focus on the accuracy of those records; however, the latest reports make it evident that a new wave of infection spreading across mainland China is affecting the elderly more than the young. Previous vaccination campaigns had targeted mainly the younger workforce.
Does this mean that the ZCP in place for two years worked? The locking-down of entire sections of cities or even entire cities, across China and most notably in cities like Shanghai, may have slowed down the human-to-human transmission of the virus. But what have been the social, human, and economic costs? It would seem that the Chinese population has begun to question, for the first time since the late 1970s when Deng Xiaoping introduced it, the Chinese “social contract” between the political elite and the mass public, whereby wealth-accumulation was permitted so long as one kept out of politics.
It would seem, however, that this social pact has lately fractured. But for what reasons? Foreign analysts and international media have speculated on a number of motives for the recent protests, not publicized in the domestic Chinese media. The real causes of the protests, however, quite few and indeed very clear.
Chinese citizens and entrepreneurs initially supported the ZCP. A strong sense of cultural heritage—its traditions, indeed superstitions, and its sense of national pride—coupled with mandatory civic education account for this support. Such were the cornerstones of Han Chinese society that induced them to accept such a strict policy for over two years. A real fear of infection, compounded by inherited superstition, also drove public acquiescence.
As central and local authorities enforced separation from loved ones in medical isolation centers, however, the prolonged isolation started to affect the unity of families. The first signs of dissatisfaction appeared when the national food-supply chain began to show difficulties matching demand. Factory owners locked their workers in their dormitories after the shutdown made it impossible to work in the plants. Generalized anxiety together with poor living conditions were a social bomb that erupted in rebellions that were not always reported until they went viral on local social media and so became public.
The Chinese censorship bureaucracy numbers over 100,000 bureaucrats. Even they, however, could not prevent the news about challenges to public order from spreading, for example, the well-publicized events at the Foxconn factory in Zhengzhou. The protests eventually reached Beijing and Shanghai, spreading then to all major mainland Chinese cities.
This was the first time since the 1989 Tiananmen events that the Chinese leadership had to address such widespread public discontent. They moderately eased the ZCP policy as a result. The policy nevertheless basically remains in place, albeit in a more flexible and tailored form that does not incite challenges to the authority of the Party and its Chairman Xi Jinping.
Nevertheless, the easing of the policy together with changes in the vaccination program will likely have serious consequences for 2023, including fall-out for Western economies.
China’s ZCP may have avoided an accelerated spread of the virus over the last two years. Insofar as it worked in China, its limitations also became apparent. The Chinese people’s reaction will make it very difficult to implement the same draconian approach in the future. Further mutations of the original virus could well appear and spread as travel restrictions in the country are eased, especially in connection with the celebration of the 22 January 2023 Lunar New Year. Those mutations could even cross borders to other countries.
The oncoming acceleration of the number of infections among the Chinese workforce and general population may, however, produce further supply-chain disruptions in the coming year, as critical logistical infrastructure and factories are more widely affected. The Chinese ZCP may help to re-ignite new waves of the pandemic. This threat needs to be the focus of economic and supply-chain planning.