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The politics of Xi Jinping’s covid retreat

Seconddecorated as An underground movement, the Chinese Communist Party prefers to advance stealthily, revealing its ambitions only when it is confident of success. True to its guerrilla roots, it remains more stealthy in retreat. Whenever failure is imminent, a familiar response is likely to ensue. Party leaders fell silent, propaganda swaggered, statistics became less reliable than usual, and security measures were tightened. These circumvention tactics can now be seen as China abandons its “total people’s war” on covid.

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Chaguan wrote that it has been more than a month since China’s top leader, President Xi Jinping, issued new orders to fight the virus. In his last report on the subject on Nov. 10, Xi told the Politburo to “resolutely” stick to its costly “dynamic zero covid” containment strategy. Xi Jinping’s absence from the front lines is all the more remarkable because in 2020, after China successfully contained the initial outbreak in the city of Wuhan, the party declared him the “commander-in-chief” of the people’s war. Proud of the efforts of the hundreds of millions of Chinese who stayed indoors to break the chain of transmission of the virus (and happy to prove foreigners wrong in their suspicions), state media declared that defeating a ferocious, invisible enemy like the coronavirus would require strong leadership from the Communist Party. Epidemic chaos in democracies like the United States has been called a testament to the decadence and callousness of the West. In September 2020, Mr. Xi Jinping briefed the United Nations General Assembly via video link within China’s closed borders, saying that “covid-19 is a major test of the governance capacity of countries.”

This year, prominent scientists who have repeatedly called for a debate on a covid-free exit strategy have been accused of wanting to “lay flat”, slang for defeatism. Now, China is suddenly learning to live with the virus. Various propaganda messages are being tested to explain the shift, emphasizing the wisdom of the party and the extraordinary capacity of the Chinese people for self-sacrifice and discipline. December 12, People’s Daily, a party mouthpiece, described the grueling covid-free campaign as a period of wisely waiting for the severity of the Omicron variant to decline and for effective vaccines and drugs to emerge. Alas, the latest subvariant, while indeed milder than Delta, is still capable of wreaking havoc in China, where only a fraction of the population has been protected by the last few doses of an effective vaccine.

Citing sincere pledges from citizens to stay at home if they develop mild symptoms so as not to “bring trouble to the country,” the party’s media told reporters it was time for them to take responsibility for their health after the Chinese government took care of them for the past three years. The main responsibility is to leave medical resources to those in need. After years of citing China’s low official death toll, currently around 5,200, People’s Daily Instead, boast that China has the lowest death toll of any major country. On Dec. 14, as the covid wave swept the country, authorities simply stopped reporting infections deemed “asymptomatic,” a vague term sometimes used in China to refer to anyone not confirmed by a chest scan. cases.

Examiners have begun limiting discussion of policy changes. Indeed, pro-Party nationalists have been silenced online for attacking critics of Zero Virus, including fellow Chinese who staged protests in cities and college campuses across the country in November.social media platform bans use of the word Tang Fei, which means “flat-lying mob,” is used by nationalists to criticize disaffected people who accuse them of hastening the abandonment of zero covid-19 through demonstrations. Despite evidence of official sensitivity to anti-lockdown protests, the most high-profile demonstrations – such as those in Shanghai that saw young people chanting “Down with Xi Jinping” – have little to do with ditching the zero-covid policy. Although the final execution was unexpectedly sudden, it was a retreat that had been months in the making. The spread of the Omicron variant is so rapid that — as public health scholars say — only a nationwide lockdown as severe as the one imposed on Shanghai’s 25 million residents for more than two months this spring, In order to beat back the new wave of infection this fall. The economic cost will be brutal, and the country is exhausted. The police and security services know how to crack down on students chanting political slogans: During protests in Beijing, Shanghai and elsewhere, many were tracked down, detained or summoned for warning. But discontent is widespread, uniting non-political types such as migrant workers fleeing factory outbreaks and homeowners defying local lockdowns.

When scientific debate is disloyal

The political stakes have also shifted after the 20th party congress in October, where Xi won a third term and packed the Politburo Standing Committee with loyal supporters.A paper published in April study-timeThe Journal of the Central Party School, written by Health Minister Ma Xiaowei, condemns the “wrong” thinking of “coexisting with the virus”. Mr Ma sees zero Covid-19 as a political imperative needed to avoid deaths, maintain social stability and ensure a successful party congress. Rereading these words, it is reasonable to wonder whether the scientific debate on “zero coronavirus”, even calls for vaccination, must be suppressed before the congress, so as not to question Xi Jinping’s confidence in containment.

To be clear, current events are a blow to Xi Jinping. Even those rousing propaganda lines urging citizens to take personal responsibility for their own health have seen his vision of fighting the pandemic as an opportunity to extend the party’s reach to every village and community. , and opportunities to mobilize the masses for collective efforts. The party has recovered from defeats before. Even now, its leading ideologues discuss how the retreat could be viewed as a victory, while censors and security services work to silence dissent. At the same time, the Chinese people are facing a severe winter.

Read more from our China columnist Chaguan:
Deathpolitics in China (December 8)
Lessons from China’s Protests (December 1)
China’s economic slowdown is hurting young people (November 24)

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