In June, President Xi Jinping defended China’s “zero-Covid” strategy as “correct and effective.” To do nothing — or “lying flat,” as Xi called it — would have meant devastation.
Now, protests are challenging China’s strict Covid lockdown policies, and through that, the story the Chinese government told about its correct and effective control of the pandemic. That narrative goes to the core of the image China is trying to sell at home, and to some degree, abroad: that Beijing’s success against Covid-19 also proves the legitimacy and superiority of its governing model. Especially compared to liberal democracies, like the United States.
“There’s a very strong desire from Beijing to tell not only the Chinese people — but also to show the world — how responsible the Chinese government is to its own people, and how the Chinese government is making all the difficult decisions, carrying out all the difficult pressure, in order to protect human lives,” said Yun Sun, senior fellow and director of the China Program at the Stimson Center.
The Chinese government thought it had a compelling case, at least in the earlier stages of the pandemic. After Beijing’s early failures in identifying and containing Covid-19, the Chinese government instituted strict policies — mass testing, strict quarantines, surveillance — to try to keep Covid-19 cases at or near zero. That meant far fewer cases, and far fewer hospitalizations and deaths. Compare that to the United States, which struggled to contain Covid-19 and was riven by political divides, which together lead to a chaotic patchwork of policies alongside hundreds of thousands of deaths.
As the United States and many other countries dealt with waves of restrictions and reopenings and resurgences, China began to go back to something almost like normal in early 2021. Although there is very much reason to doubt China’s official Covid-19 statistics, the country recorded about 30,000 deaths compared to more than a million in the United States — but also far fewer than countries in Western Europe, or even those democracies close by, like Japan. All of which have far smaller populations than China.
The Chinese government wanted “to make an argument that in the capitalist United States, in democracy, they let loose because the government needed to force you back to work, and they didn’t really care about the human cost of it,” said Jacob Stokes, senior fellow with the Indo-Pacific Security Program at CNAS. “And there is an element where they really do believe that.”
But once on the zero-Covid path, China didn’t have an easy route off. As other countries invested in vaccination campaigns and began more fully reopening, China committed to keeping cases and deaths low well into 2021 and 2022, which meant locking down cities of millions and needing to re-introduce testing and quarantine measures that often seemed arbitrary and were burdensome and imposed real costs. The latest protests began after deaths from a fire in Urumqi, where residents were under lockdown, unleashed an anger over whether China’s promise — that its model protected the public — remained true.
The Chinese government sold a narrative of how it successfully defeated Covid. Then, the narrative got away from it.
That narrative has been critical for President Xi. It compensates for the early failures following the outbreak in Wuhan. It justifies China’s economic slowdown. It justifies the draconian measures, the public sacrifice, and mental and emotional toll; in the end we care about you, the Chinese public, your health and safety. China framed its management of Covid-19 as a show of responsibility and stability and leadership in the world, and that was refracted back to the public. A survey from early in the pandemic showed that the Chinese public saw China’s handling of Covid as an indication of its global rise, especially compared to the disarray in the United States.
But China’s triumphalism now looks like it had serious limitations — namely that China didn’t have a real exit plan from this strict containment strategy, especially as Covid-19 evolved and, with the omicron variants, became even more transmissible. China’s vaccination campaign also faltered; its vaccines aren’t as efficacious and many of its elderly population remains unvaccinated. The Chinese government actively promoted misinformation about mRNA vaccines most widely used in the West, which closed off a pathway that could have helped fight the virus, and has made them even more reliant on homegrown shots.
The Chinese government “had a little bit of hubris, I think, about the extent to which that model meant that they were always going to be better at this than the rest of the world,” said Stokes. “And because that became part of a political argument, I think that probably overwhelmed the policy process related to public health.”
The government looks likely to loosen the strictest of Covid-19 policies, easing some lockdown and testing restrictions. But that will also likely mean an increase in cases, and depending on how much of an opening this really is, it may be a dramatic spike in a population that has a massive immunity gap compared with other countries around the world. And if that’s the case — that Covid-zero didn’t blunt the worst of the pandemic, but instead delayed and delayed it, with the Chinese government never using the time to prepare a real transition away from it — that undermines the “correct and effective” narrative of zero-Covid.
“Given the reality that China has basically had so little devastation in terms of health effects, it would really crush the narrative. And I think that that narrative is important,” said Jeremy Lee Wallace, associate professor at Cornell University who researches China and authoritarian systems.
Yet the defiance of the protesters also shows that China’s Covid narrative has already started to erode. But three years in, the pandemic, and the circumstances, have evolved. China’s economy has sputtered, weakening the other bargain of China’s authoritarian system, a sacrifice of political and civil liberties for the promise of economic growth and stability. That frustration is spilling over, especially now, with the rest of the world largely open, and China still largely closed, and closed off. The Chinese government can try to censor that — say, trying to crop out maskless, screaming crowds at the World Cup on TV — but it is impossible to obscure completely.
“In the early months of the pandemic, the Chinese government has shown on the surface, just competence in terms of keeping the numbers down — but these efforts are clearly not costless,” said Joshua Byun, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Pennsylvania who surveyed how Covid-19 affected foreign policy sentiments among the Chinese public in 2020. “They put a real damper on the livelihood of ordinary people, and this is what we’re seeing being expressed against the government and on the streets in Beijing.”
The Chinese government cares most about its domestic audience. But these protests affect their global image — and ambitions
As experts said, the domestic audience is the most important one here, but the Chinese government also sees value in getting the rest of the world to buy what it’s selling. And in the early stages of the pandemic, it wasn’t a totally hard sell — and it may have also helped other countries defend and promote tough lockdown and travel policies.
But by using China’s Covid success as a contrast with other countries, especially liberal democracies, it was always clear that this was a top-down policy. Though Beijing has tried to put some blame on local officials for Covid success and failures, it ultimately connected zero-Covid to its centralized system, and Xi Jinping himself — who, by the way, is now basically leader for life. And China’s insistence on its singularity also made it vulnerable in other areas, most obviously its rejection of Western-made vaccines that may be more effective than the current crop of Chinese-made vaccines, and whose adoption would at least help speed up vaccination efforts, especially among the most vulnerable.
And all of that may hurt some of China’s persuasive powers with the rest of the world. Some scholars have argued that Xi wants to reshape the world around China’s leadership, to use its power to reset the global agenda so it aligns with its interests, not those of the United States. China has used its economic influence, especially in the developing world, to try to achieve this, but it also used those pandemic contrasts with the West to promote its image as the more dependable, stable, less chaotic partner.
This is especially true in the Global South, where China has invested a lot in trying to expand its reach. “What is the image that China is presenting to the Global South at this moment? They often suggest that they have a better ‘democracy’ than the West, that they’ve got some special Chinese governance knowledge that they want to share with developing countries,” said Joshua Eisenman, associate professor of politics at the Keough School of Global Affairs at the University of Notre Dame.
“I think we should ask if that effort is being gutted here, because anyone looking at China’s zero-Covid crackdowns is unlikely to say, ‘get me some of that.’”
And while it’s unclear how these protests will play out, and just how much of a challenge they will present to Xi’s regime, they are a reminder that as much as the Chinese government cracks down on and censors its population, there are limits to its reach. “I think the protests have really made clear that China’s not a monolith — this is not everyone agrees with Xi Jinping and Xi Jinping all the way down,” Wallace said. “There are a lot of diverse opinions inside of China, and that people have their own ideas about their prioritizations of freedom in public health and their willingness to speak. And people are willing to do that even in this very closed state.”
As Wallace said, that has important implications for global perceptions of China, not so much as to whether the regime is weak or strong, but even in an authoritarian state, not everyone is marching in lockstep with the images — and narrative — that Chinese Communist Party has sought to create.