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Has zero-COVID checkmated China's Xi?

Episode Summary

China has long had one of the strictest COVID protocols in the world, leading to extremely low rates of the virus. But residents are protesting the policy, putting President Xi Jinping in an uncommon position: on the defensive.

Episode Notes

Mainland China is roiled by protests, the size of which have not been seen in a generation. People are calling for an end to the government’s strict “zero-COVID” restrictions. The moment has also brought rare public criticism of its architect, President Xi Jinping. Just months ago, he secured an unprecedented third term, but now is as vulnerable as he’s ever been.

Today, we examine whether the zero-COVID policy could be Xi’s downfall. Read the full transcript here.

Host: Gustavo Arellano

Guests: L.A. Times China correspondent Stephanie Yang

More reading:

‘Zero COVID’ is roiling China. But ending the policy may cause a massive health disaster

Protests over China’s strict COVID-19 controls spread across the country

Dreams of a Red Emperor: The relentless rise of Xi Jinping

Episode Transcription

Gustavo Arellano: It wasn't too long ago that China's president, Xi Jinping, seemed untouchable.

News Clip: Please join me in a warm applause to welcome the general secretary and other political bureau standing committee members. 

Gustavo: When the country's Communist Party wrapped up Its twice-a-decade congress in October, there was no question who was in charge and who would continue to be so.

News Clip: Let us warmly welcome comrade Xi Jinping, the general secretary of the CPC Central Committee to deliver remarks.  

Gustavo: Xi secured an unprecedented third term in power and stacked the Communist Party's most senior leadership committee with loyalists. That all but guaranteed his unquestionable grip on the nation, until about a month later, when protests broke out.

 [Protesters chanting.] 

Gustavo: His signature policy to manage the COVID-19 pandemic was a policy called zero-COVID. The state violently enforced severe lockdowns and constrained citizens' lifestyles for nearly the past two years. But citizens have had enough and Xi's tight grip on China looks like it’s starting to crack. 

 [Protestors chanting.]

Gustavo: I'm Gustavo Arellano. You're listening to “The Times: Essential News from the L.A. Times.” It's Monday, December 6th, 2022. Today: Has Xi JInping's power weakened because of a fiasco wholly of his own making?

Gustavo: Talking to me about all of this is my L.A. Times colleague and China correspondent Stephanie Yang. Stephanie, welcome to “The Times.”

Stephanie Yang: Thank you for having me. 

Gustavo: So the protests in China have gotten worldwide attention. What's the latest?

Stephanie: Yeah, so the protests in China are really a culmination of almost three years of frustration under COVID lockdowns. And so, over the past year, really, we've seen some of these smaller-scale protests, you know, in residential buildings and communities for people who are pushing back on some of these really harsh lockdown measures. But what happened on the weekend of November 26th was that that frustration reached an entire new level.

Stephanie: Across several different cities all at the same time we saw mass protests, people going out into the streets. And what started off as a vigil really turned into a political movement, however briefly, where people were calling for the end of COVID zero, among other demands.

News Clip: Demonstrators in Chengdu chanted, “End lockdown,” and, “Free speech,” as well as, “Make China great again,” as they gathered in the dark around candles.

Stephanie: As people gathered steam, they were also calling for things like freedom of speech, freedom of the media, democracy and some even went as far as to call for Xi Jinping and the Communist Party to step down. This type of political speech, particularly, you know, shouted out in the public and on this street, is really rare in China, you know, where the social environment, — all environments really — are so tightly controlled. And so I think it's a sign of how people's anger has really boiled over.

Stephanie: The spark for all of this came from a fire on November 24th in Urumqi in the Xinjiang province.

News clip: Ten people died in a fire amid claims that the lockdown had in fact hampered the rescue efforts.

Stephanie: People online were speculating that, harsh zero COVID lockdown had kept people from leaving their apartments and it also kept the firefighters from getting to the building in time. This ended up uniting a bunch of people in their frustrations and their grief and anger, not just at this event, but at a string of events that have shown how tough zero COVID can be.

News clip: The protest spread quickly to other cities, including Chengdu, Wuhan, Nanjing and the capital Beijing. 

Stephanie: Looking at, you know, the scale of these protests. It is, you know, the largest mass demonstration since the democracy protests in Tiananmen Square that ultimately ended in a bloody crackdown on June 4th, 1989. 

Stephanie: Though the recent demonstrations have drawn a lot of comparisons to Tiananmen, this is definitely different. So, you know, on one hand we're seeing this mass unrest that could pose a problem to Xi and the Communist Party, at the same time it's much harder for people now to organize. And that's because, you know, post-1989 the Chinese government has done a lot to suppress any sort of political dissent and any potential organization or activism. Those efforts have really been accelerated as well under Xi, and so, you know, a lot of these protesters are attending these demonstrations and engaging for the very first time, and so they don't really know how to organize. At the same time, you know, the state's surveillance and security apparatus is already kicking into high gear, keeping them from gathering again with the deployment of police forces, the intimidation of attendees and protesters, and massive censorship. And it's not that protests don't ever happen in China. They do, and quite frequently. It's just that most of the time, when you see these protests break out, they are very localized, and disconnected from one another and focused on very specific issues: things like land or labor or pay. Not in the same way that you saw people recently calling for freedom of speech, freedom of democracy and human rights. That's really what's remarkable here. And the spark for all of this over the past three years really was zero COVID

Gustavo: So how did zero COVID go from something that most people aid worked even though they had issues with how it was implemented to something that was protest-worthy?

Stephanie: If you go back to Wuhan in 2020, the government was actually slow on the uptake. You know, they didn't understand or they weren't, you know, getting the right measures in place to deal with how serious this disease was and how infectious and how deadly. But, you know, once it really started overtaking the city, they snapped back the other way. It was extreme measures all around. It was highways being closed all across China. Other cities closing their borders, people staying indoors. It was really remarkable as well because no one had ever really seen this before. No one was sure if it was going to work. Ultimately, it did work, going to the extreme and keeping tight curbs on everyone's mobility. So by keeping, you know, people from moving around and limiting them essentially to their homes, China was able to essentially stamp out the virus at home and was able to completely reopen in May of 2020, much earlier than the rest of the world as they were grappling, you know, with climbing cases and climbing deaths. It really was something that was novel and something that was astounding in the way that China was able to carry it out. And you know, in the U.S. and in other places, we had these shelter-in-place measures and we had these recommendations not to go out, not to gather. But they were really hard to enforce, and that wasn't the case in China where government state control permeates all aspects of life. And so this really was a big political victory for Xi and a way for him to say, look at China's governance model, look at what we were able to do to control the coronavirus. Compare that to other places where millions of people have died. And this really was a validation of the fact that this was something that he could get under control using his immense control and show that he was doing better than a lot of Western nations. And to this day, China's official death count stands at about 5,300, which is really astounding numbers for the world's most populous nation.

Stephanie: If you look back at the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, that was another way for Xi to essentially, you know, invite all these athletes around the world into China to compete. But he was able to keep Beijing safe from any sort of massive outbreak, even though tons of international travelers were coming in. So that was another example of, hey, this thing works. 

Stephanie: The problem is it's not working as well as more transmissive variants have come out. So Omicron, for example, has really, really challenged China's zero COVID policy. But at the same time, because this is Xi’s policy, it's, uh, very politically sensitive to even question it.

Stephanie: Because of the way that Xi Jinping has claimed success and victory with his zero COVID strategy, it really is inextricably linked to his name. And so I think that's one of the reasons why when you saw people taking to the streets, and shouting for an end these zero COVID lockdowns, it quickly morphed into something more political, because zero COVID strategy itself has become political. 

Stephanie: So one of the reasons that you're seeing people become more and more upset with the policy is because over time this policy really has a mounting social and economic cost. Uh, so at the start of the year, you know, economic growth was already slowing. But zero Covid has just dragged that down further. So you've seen businesses shuttering, these snap lockdowns lead to all of this uncertainty: People can't go to work or make money or run their businesses. That's really hurt people's wallets and income. You're seeing increasing pessimism in the middle class, you're seeing high unemployment among young people in the city. You're seeing both foreign and domestic enterprise lose faith in the Chinese market and not want to invest at the moment. And then on top of that, you've seen, you know, the real estate sector, which is a huge pillar of wealth in the country, is turning down essentially, because, you know, you have all of these developers defaulting on their debts. Uh, you have apartments not being finished. And you have angry homeowners boycotting their mortgages and those are all issues that have been there, but have really been accelerated by COVID as well.

Gustavo: Coming up after the break, how Xi Jinping’s crown jewel of a policy started to rust at the worst possible moment.

Gustavo: Stephanie, we had you on the podcast back in April to talk about COVID lockdowns in Shanghai, and I remember vividly you telling us about people screaming from their apartments to protest those zero COVID policies.

Gustavo: But at what point did this policy start to become a real problem for Xi? 

Stephanie: I think, you know, that moment in Shanghai was a testing point for zero COVID, particularly because they were confronting the more contagious Omicron variant. One health expert put it that essentially previous COVID strains were like forest fires. They were very dangerous, but they could be contained. Whereas Omicron is like the wind: You can divert it, but you really can't stop it. And so we saw that starting to spread in Shanghai and really only the harshest lockdown measures were able to stamp it out. So, you know, even though people are growing frustrated, at that time people also knew that it was very unlikely that there would be a change to policy, especially leading up to a major political event for Xi, which was the 20th party congress in October.

Gustavo: So what was that congress? Like, how important is it to Chinese political life? How often does it happen? All of that.

Stephanie: It's a huge political moment. 

News clip: Distinguished delegates, the 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China now officially begins.

Stephanie: It happens once every five years, and it sets major policy for their agenda and it also determines, you know, the next leaders who are at the top levels of China's Communist Party.

News clip: Please all rise and sing the national anthem. 

Stephanie: This is where they set the major priorities for the next five years and appoint the nation's top leaders, including president and general secretary, which of course is Xi.

Xi Jinping: [Addresses congress in Chinese.] 

Stephanie: So according to precedent, a president is only supposed to have two, five-term limits, essentially limited to 10 years of rule. He did away with that a few years ago, paving the way for him to rule for life. And what we saw this year was the confirmation of that. In addition to taking his third five-year term, he installed even more loyalists at the top of the party. He didn't announce a successor, which means that he's, you know, essentially seeing himself ruling for the foreseeable future, and there's no one really left to challenge him. Even during the congress, there was this really rare twist where his predecessor, Hu Jintao, was let away in the middle of the event. That really sparked a lot of speculation on what Xi intended to say by leading his predecessor out right at his crowning.

Gustavo: Wow. Did Xi say anything at all during the congress? About zero COVID.

Stephanie: Absolutely. COVID was brought up, as one of his major victories. And throughout the pandemic, he has touted it as, you know, a way of saving people's lives. They're putting the people's lives above everything else. And he really framed it as this all-out war to stop the spread of the virus, which they've been able to do under his leadership.

Gustavo: And yet here we are, barely two months after that, and China's experiencing the biggest social unrest in more than a generation. Has Xi spoken at all about the protests or is there any indication about how he feels about them, like whether he was surprised that they came.

Stephanie: There has been absolutely no word or indication from Xi himself. China followed their playbook. Uh, they erased signs of it on social media. They started intimidating, gathering up protesters. State media has made very little mention of it. It's almost as if, you know, if you weren't paying attention over the past couple of days, it's as if nothing ever happened. And the barest mention has been made by some commentators that have alluded to foreign forces making trouble in China, which is what they kind of turn to to discredit the Hong Kong protests as well.

Gustavo: After the break, why Xi just can't let zero COVID go and what that means for China.

Gustavo: So Stephanie, you said how Xi’s zero COVID policy is not just starting to wear down the people of China, but also its economy. How does Xi fix his way out of this?

Stephanie: That's a really good question. I'm not sure if he himself knows, you know, they've really backed themselves into a corner with this zero COVID policy. And the reason is, you know, people are calling for an end to the lockdowns and an end to zero COVID. But if that happens, China's not prepared for the latest surge of infections. You have vaccination, particularly among the elderly, fairly low. I think the latest vaccination rates for 60 and up are about maybe 86%, and lower for booster. If you look at 80 and up, that's about 66%. So this would sweep through the most vulnerable population. At the same time, China doesn't have the medical resources in order to accommodate that kind of strain. If you look at statistics, China only has about four ICU beds per 100,000 people, compared to 27 ICU beds per 100,000 people in the U.S. So I think they're really stuck in a sense where they also, you know, know that it's weighing on the economy, weighing on people's lives, and they want to lift it, but they just can't because they're not ready.

Stephanie: If, uh, you wanted to look at the worst-case scenario, you could really turn to Hong Kong, which experienced its own surge earlier this year. Hong Kong had adhered to a very strict zero COVID policy, similar to the mainland, but Omicron was able to break through those defenses and then quickly swept through the city. And so what you saw was death count went from zero to nearly 300 per day. Nurses and doctors were completely overwhelmed. Ambulances were taking hours to get there. And actually the city ran out of coffins. It got really, really bad. And so I think what China fears is a repeat of that, but for their 1.4 billion people.

Gustavo: Yeah. That would be catastrophic for China if they had to deal with the way the pandemic spread across the rest of the world. So how much of a problem is this zero COVID policy for Xi then?

Stephanie: Well this is really unprecedented for Xi. He's facing this mass unrest, which is obviously a huge problem and puts the, uh, validity of the party in question if they can't solve it. But at the same time, he can't lift zero COVID before they have the vaccinations and medical resources in place because a wave of infections and deaths would really undermine his zero COVID strategy over the past three years and everything that he'd been working for.

Gustavo: Has Xi signaled in any way how he plans to manage this public outrage? 

Stephanie: So following the protests, they have made some acknowledgements, about the fact that they want to move away from zero COVID. So last week, China's National Health Commission said that it would try and accelerate efforts to boost vaccination in people over 60. Even though that's something that they've been trying to do for the past few years, a sign that they are really thinking about how to get out of this zero COVID trap. At the same time you've seen state media start to shift their messaging after years of saying how dangerous COVID is, how many deaths it's led to outside of China. They're starting to frame Omicron as a less severe variant that will pose new challenges and potentially change their pandemic strategy going forward.

Gustavo: Finally, Stephanie, I can't help but to wonder what all this means for China's ambitions to be a major global superpower. The global superpower. That's something that Xi’s been boasting about as long as he's been in charge. But now the economy is sputtering in China. People are angry. Is this zero COVID backlash going to end up being just a bump in China and Xi’s global ambitions? Or might It end up being more problematic than that?

Stephanie: I think that that's a really good question and it's something that has yet to be determined. If you look at Xi’s trajectory, this was really supposed to be, you know, his year. He's taking his third five-year term. He has sidelined all political opponents. He's built China into this huge superpower with a thriving economy. He had revamped the military. He tightened his grip on Hong Kong after the protests, turned his sights toward Taiwan, uh, was really on the path to meet his main goal of rejuvenating the Chinese nation. 

Stephanie: But then you have zero COVID throwing a wrench in all of those plans. It's dragging the economy. It's leading to public unrest. It's taking up a lot of state resources just to keep it going. And now we've seen people demonstrating weeks after he has taken, you know, his third term in power. So it's definitely a huge challenge for him. At the same time, he is the most powerful ruler since, uh, Mao, so he does have a very tight grip on everything. We'll see if it's enough, but it's definitely not off to a great start for him.

Gustavo: Stephanie, thank you so much for this conversation.

Stephanie: Great, thank you.

Gustavo: And that’s it for this episode of “The Times, Essential News From the L.A. Times.”

Kasia Broussalian and Kinsee Morlan were the jefas on this episode, and Mario Diaz mixed and mastered it. 

Our show is produced by Shannon Lin, Denise Guerra, Kasia Broussalian, David Toledo and Ashlea Brown. Our editorial assistants are Roberto Reyes and Nicolas Perez. Our engineers are Mario Diaz, Mark Nieto and Mike Heflin. Our editor is Kinsee Morlan. Our executive producers are Jazmín Aguilera, Shani Hilton and Heba Elorbany. And our theme music is by Andrew Eapen. 

I'm Gustavo Arellano. We'll be back Wednesday with all the news and desmadre. Gracias.