As a fresh Covid outbreak develops across China, tens of millions of people are being forced to isolate themselves at home. Under Xi Jinping's zero-Covid order, an incalculable number of people have been placed into isolation facilities. This strict, one-size-fits-all approach is purely based on political dictation, and it has resulted in serious, avoidable food shortages and financial hardship for those compelled to remain at home.
Fears of insecurity are on the rise, not just in terms of public health but also in terms of domestic economic growth. If the situation persists into the late summer, Xi's coronation to a historic third term may be jeopardized.
So far, the plan to lock down entire cities shows no signs of abating, despite the proliferation of unconfirmed stories of famine on social media. People are unable to go food shopping, and deliveries are frequently difficult to obtain. This form of centralized management was disastrous for China's government-mandated grain, steel, and cement production in its early years of economic development. It is even less appropriate for modern China.
This all-or-nothing strategy looks to have no way out. Xi has centralized authority on himself, away from the Politburo Standing Committee, which formerly provided China with some policy freedom.
While government slogans encourage individuals to embrace misfortune, those who test positive (false or true) and are pushed into medical mass prison find it to be a cold consolation.
Images and running commentary of filthy detention facilities have filled the popular Chinese messaging app WeChat. Those compelled to remain in their homes due to decreasing funds, food, and medication are not delighted to "eat bitterness," as the Chinese proverb says.
A rare online and offline opposition has developed, putting China's censors and local police units sent in to keep order to the test. People see their government from a new perspective, not as a source of unlimited upward mobility but as a source of harshness and rigidity that tolerates little wiggle room.
Chinese society has not been so influenced by government dictation on such a huge scale since Mao's enormous effort to clear the land of crop-damaging sparrows. Instead, the political effort resulted in insect infestation, agricultural collapse, and global hunger.
A guy is heard chatting to a healthcare expert in a widely distributed Chinese audio clip that has subsequently been censored on WeChat. He keeps claiming that his father's app revealed negative test results, but health experts claim that there was a positive readout. That would imply that his father would be moved to a repurposed warehouse with dubious medical facilities. Finally, the healthcare worker advises the man to resist anybody attempting to take his father away unless they can provide a positive Covid test.
While this may seem like a little act of personal protest, bigger groups have formed to avoid testing in their apartment complexes for fear of being discovered when they congregate. This is one of the few plausible reasons why people can test positive after a month of near-complete seclusion. In certain circumstances, medical personnel will no longer perform the testing, forcing residents to test each other instead. Any infection restarts the quarantine for the entire building for another fourteen days.
The glaring lack of preparedness for a portion of food and medical crises has undermined some Chinese citizens' belief that China has defeated Covid with a system much superior to the rest of the world. For decades, centralized control has steered economic growth and maintained the country's top-down leadership system. This is now under scrutiny.
This includes the economic ramifications of the mass immobility of the general people.
Shanghai, which has a population of 25 million people, has been virtually closed for over a month. Cargo ships are held up at sea, container trucks can't load, and warehouses in the city and the adjacent port of Qingdao are nearly full. New cargoes will soon be unable to find a home. The longer individuals are imprisoned, the worse the cascading repercussions will grow.
Beijing, the political capital, is now experiencing panic purchasing and obligatory testing. As illnesses spread, lockdowns are expected to expand throughout the city. Fears are being raised that new variations will emerge as a result of the spike. One worldwide lesson learned is that viruses can change quicker than governments' ability to ignore or regulate them.
China's economic estimates have already been revised lower, albeit the revisions do not appear to properly recognize the magnitude of the looming issues and the inability of present strategies to solve them. The International Monetary Fund has reduced its 2022 growth forecast by about a percentage point to 4.8 percent. Investment banks are considerably less bullish, forecasting 4.5 percent annual growth vs. the official Chinese government aim of 5.5 percent.
Slow development poses a political risk for China's leaders. Xi recently pledged a new round of infrastructure expenditure, but it is unclear how construction workers would be able to work without spreading the virus. That, along with his admonition to establish political superiority by outpacing U.S. growth this year, is neither smart health policy nor a high bar for success (the U.S. is only expected to clock in around 3 percent for 2022.) The public's faith in the government's stimulus package is also dwindling. Since the People's Bank of China announced reduced bank reserve requirements to stimulate the economy in mid-April, the Shanghai Composite Index has fallen about 8%.
It is unclear if this health and economic crisis will put enough political pressure on Xi to reverse his strategy. To secure his leadership for a third term in office in October, he needs stability and continued economic development. So far, he lacks both.
Instead of addressing the problems of the zero-Covid policy, such as providing rent help and substantial money for food delivery, the leadership is willing to let the scenario play out. As a result, individuals must rely on cooperating with their neighbors whenever feasible in order to have enough to eat.
According to some predictions, China will be unable to sustain a looser Covid policy for at least six months. This would need a high enough vaccination rate as well as an adequate medicine supply to treat the afflicted. Importing mRNA vaccinations from other countries would undoubtedly help, but it would be viewed as a political blow to the widely promoted and increasingly discredited home-grown Chinese vaccines.
Since Deng Xiaoping's reform and opening phase in the 1980s, the Chinese government has been known for its flexibility. As a result, the country grew to become the world's second-biggest economy and a major trading nation.
The same level of adaptability is required to deal with the growing health crisis. The sooner, the better.
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