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China’s sudden abandonment of the ”zero-COVID” epidemic management policy caught many in the China-watching community, including myself, by surprise. Moreover, it poses an acute threat to President Xi Jinping’s influence on policymaking and his prospects for a fourth five-year term in 2027.

The nationwide protests on Nov. 25-27 against the country’s strict COVID-19 measures (which marked China’s largest protests since 1989) and the Nov. 30 death of former Chinese leader Jiang Zemin were followed by leaks on Dec. 1 that Beijing would lift COVID-19 restrictions and a formal announcement on Dec. 7.

The new measures included ditching mass testing and allowing the infected and close contacts to quarantine at home. In the days surrounding this announcement, most cities lifted their lockdown measures as well. And with China’s quarantine and on-arrival testing requirements dropped for inbound travelers on Jan. 8, the only restrictions that remain include a suspension on new tourist visas and a requirement that inbound passengers show a negative COVID-19 test taken within the last 48 hours before boarding their flight or train ride.

Thus, in just one month’s time, Beijing has dismantled the zero-COVID policy to which it had desperately clung over the last three years and which President Xi had personally championed. This swift turn of events caught me and many others off guard, as prior to November’s protests, China’s strict lockdown measures appeared likely to linger throughout at least the first half of 2023, according to Beijing’s policy pronouncements.

Why the Sudden Change?

So what went wrong for those, like myself, who forecasted a slow and gradual end to China’s zero-COVID policy? No egregious lapse in forecasting best practices was committed, if I may be so charitable to myself and my fellow China watchers, but rather a key axiom of Chinese politics brutally reasserted itself in the course of one restive week and swiftly unwound all predictions of a gradual easing: all policy priorities in China are subservient to maintaining public stability.

This has been true for China’s long imperial history, wherein citizen uprisings have threatened dynasties that were previously viewed as heaven-ordained, and is especially true in the People’s Republic of China. The Chinese Communist Party (CPP) is deeply attuned to the threat of public instability, given the Marxist dictum that the proletariat must inevitably rise up to overthrow the bourgeoisie. But the cruel irony is that the CCP itself, which in 1949 acted as leader of the proletariat and champion of the civil war, is now the only valid actor to play the role of the bourgeoisie, given its complete monopoly on power in China. Thus, the Party feverishly works to prevent an end to its reign, as evidenced by a public security apparatus whose funding rivals China’s military. So when unrest nonetheless occurs, Beijing’s long list of policy priorities, even those of supreme leader Xi Jinping himself, are unceremoniously jettisoned, and restoring public stability becomes the CCP’s prime directive. Hence, Beijing relented on zero COVID.

But why give in? Couldn’t Beijing have simply suppressed the protests with its Orwellian public security apparatus or, in the worst case, committed a reprise of 1989 by wielding a military crackdown? As for the first option, it appears that Beijing did attempt a strong but mostly non-violent security response. Over the weekend of Nov. 25-27, countless videos surfaced on Chinese social media platform WeChat of local police and security forces hauling off the most vocal protesters and stationing overnight hundreds of police officers, including armored units and riot squads, at the sites of the most chaotic protests. And by all accounts, this approach seemed to have worked. As the weekend ended and the morning of Nov. 28 dawned, the worst protests had subsided across China’s cities, so a Tiananmen-style crackdown was not only inadvisable but entirely unnecessary.

But two days later on Nov. 30, former CCP general secretary Jiang Zemin passed away, posing the threat of catalyzing the national protest movement. In the PRC, mourning is one of the most acceptable forms of large-scale public demonstrations, which officials normally highly repress, given China’s culture of deep reverence for the dead as well as Beijing’s desire to encourage hero worship of CCP leaders (like Jiang). Mourners can ”wave the red flag” — i.e., show they are loyal CCP followers and Chinese nationalists — by holding pictures of the former leader and making speeches about his great policies as they march in the streets, which makes it politically problematic for security forces to arrest or attack them, which could be viewed as an affront against the former leader and the CCP itself. Thus, such mourning for Jiang — who, given his consensus-based leadership approach throughout China’s economic boom of the 1990s, served as a natural foil to Xi’s leadership — could have catalyzed the already widespread anti-COVID-19 protests. Jiang’s passing caused China’s leaders to face a historical parallel with the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests that, in all likelihood, frightened them to their core and drove them to expedite the retirement of the zero-COVID policy.

Several weeks of student protests led to China’s June 4, 1989, military crackdown on protesters in Tiananmen Square, a seminal event in Chinese political history from which the CCP drew the lesson that it should always act early to control public instability. The protests were triggered by the death of former General Secretary Hu Yaobang on April 15, which provided an excuse for the economically and politically disillusioned Chinese masses to take to the streets ”in mourning.” This mourning would over the next seven weeks turn into protests in the hundreds of thousands that the CCP believed it could suppress by no other means than brute force. Thus, Jiang’s death on Nov. 30, 2022, presented a dire choice for President Xi Jinping and his devout Politburo: either give in to the protesters’ demands now by lifting restrictions or risk Jiang’s death catalyzing the protests to a point where a violent crackdown appeared to be the only viable option to maintain public stability. Besides the massive blow to the CCP’s legitimacy that such a crackdown would cause in the digital age — with online videos of violence overwhelming China’s censors — the international opprobrium, and particularly the Western sanctions, would be much greater than in 1989 (a time of relatively good U.S.-China relations) and further threaten China’s fragile economic recovery. Thus, Xi and his cohort chose capitulation on zero COVID. Though other factors likely played into this decision — including China’s economic downturn, Xi’s need for policy bandwidth to deal with other problems, and the seemingly uncontrollable spread of omicron variant infections — the catalyst of Jiang’s death, which could have revived and broadened the anti-COVID-19 protests, is the most likely explanation for the rapidity of Beijing’s policy reversal, as opposed to a months-long wind-down.

Threats to Xi’s Rule

These protests have highlighted the risk that Xi’s policy failures compound, both abroad and at home, threatening his firm grip on power. The main weak spot in Xi’s armor, which has existed since he took office in 2012 and has grown proportionately with Xi’s power, is that when you become the unchallenged chairman of everything, you are not only lauded for all of China’s successes, but you are also responsible for all of its failures. This includes the ill-planned scrapping of zero COVID, which occurred as China’s elderly were still under-vaccinated and its hospitals under-equipped (particularly regarding the number of intensive care unit beds, by Beijing’s own admission) to handle a massive infection wave.

Other policies, too, could compound Xi’s failures and raise questions about whether he deserves to play such an outsized role in policymaking compared with previous leaders. At a strategic level, Xi could botch China’s economic and technological competition with the United States or poorly manage crises around Taiwan. Similarly, Xi’s favored policies like recruiting corporations to address the wealth gap and attempting to deleverage the real estate sector could blow up in his face. Nationwide protests could also resume over myriad economic and social issues, and Xi could be forced to make more policy concessions to contain unrest or hazard a crackdown that would isolate China from the West.

Despite these present and possible future failures, Xi’s grip on power seems secure in the immediate term due to his influence over central Party organs. Xi still holds control over the CCP’s reins of power, with the 20th Politburo and Politburo Standing Committee, the Party’s central halls of power, fully staffed with loyalists until 2027. The Central Commission for Discipline Inspection — the leading organization in charge of anti-corruption cases, which Xi has wielded partly to purge political rivals from 2012-2022 — is also run by Xi’s acolytes. The top echelons of the military, too, have been hand selected by Xi over the last 10 years, with the Central Military Commission already having undergone anti-corruption purges and been staffed with Xi’s Party connections from earlier in his career.

However, economic pragmatists like outgoing Premier Li Keqiang may cause Xi some problems. Li and others of his ilk are on their way out from the CCP’s economic policy apparatus following the 20th Party Congress, but they may yet have a chance to exert influence on economic policy. Leading economic bodies like the National Development and Reform Commission will be under heavy scrutiny, as Xi asks them to deliver on his ”national rejuvenation” promise, despite a hostile foreign environment and a tight domestic budget. So this economic policy apparatus may be the site of further policy dissent, if not from loyal elites then from the extensive patronage networks under them or from the economic pragmatists watching from the sidelines as their portfolio is mismanaged. How Xi responds to this dissent is equally worth watching. Xi could cede some control over policy, as he did to Li Keqiang in the second quarter of 2022 following the Shanghai lockdowns that sank the economy. Alternatively, Xi could make a power play, wielding state organs to silence critics, which would insulate himself from all but the most loyal policy advisors and place himself at greater risk of major policy failures.

What’s Next?

Xi’s choice of conciliation or retribution will dictate his prospects of having an outsized role in Chinese policy and staying in power for another five years once 2027 rolls around. If he chooses conciliation, there are two possible outcomes. Xi’s influence over policy could lessen, but the introduction of more moderate policy voices might help him avoid major policy blunders and thus protect his chances of a fourth term. However, such a term might see him begrudgingly revert to some degree of consensus-based decision-making, which characterized Chinese leaders before him. Alternatively, conciliation could expose cracks in Xi’s political power base, enabling a restrengthening of suppressed factions that move to oust him in 2027.

Two similar outcomes exist if Xi chooses a power play. He could continue his reign of fear and squash any would-be usurpers for the position of general secretary, but this would be predicated on his ability to refrain from committing unacceptable policy blunders, a condition that may be out of his hands given the volatility of global economic, security and diplomatic affairs over the last three years. Even the PRC’s strongest leader, Mao Zedong, nearly lost his power base due to his hand in the Great Leap Forward of 1958-1962, a failed agricultural collectivization program that led to the starvation of over 30 million Chinese. Should Xi commit a similarly major policy blunder, or more likely a series of policy blunders that threaten to forestall China’s ”national rejuvenation” to leading superpower status, his leading role in Chinese politics could be thrown into jeopardy. And any remedy he may apply to counter this prospect could make matters worse by exposing China’s economy to atrophy and its people to privation as Xi strives to maintain his position.

Of course, these four alternative futures do not exhaust Xi’s options. More likely than all of these is that Xi conducts a balancing act, conceding only when absolutely necessary (e.g., when Jiang’s death risked protests spiraling out of control), wielding power politics to silence naysayers and scapegoating local officials for failures. His capacity to lean on policy pragmatists (like Li Keqiang) when it suits him, and thus claim some semblance of consensus-based decision-making, is significantly lessened in the wake of the 20th Party Congress, however, as he has ousted many of these folks from power.

Xi could augment this strategy by gradually reducing his exposure to volatile policy portfolios — for example, by extricating himself from leading economic reform efforts — and, thus, his vulnerability to criticism. But it is unclear whether or not Xi has the humility to make such a calculated retreat. His first 10 years in power have shown him to be a willful and self-aggrandizing leader with an ambitious vision for China’s future (and a strong belief in his own indispensability to realizing that vision), but he is also a master player in the game of Chinese politics with an acute paranoia about potential contenders that may preclude him from ceding policy control. The longer he avoids diffusing responsibility, the more likely it becomes that his tenure as general secretary — and China’s ”national rejuvenation” as a whole — will be judged a failure. Moreover, if major decisions in China remain overly influenced by the decisions of one man, forecasting Chinese policy will slowly become more difficult, especially amid China’s painful economic transition and its deepening strategic competition with the United States.

Source: Stratfor January 11, 2023 | By Chase Blazek