Beijing abruptly abandoned its cruel and unpopular “zero Covid” policy in early December after it had wrecked China’s economy and caused the Chinese people countless miseries that eventually led to mass protests. China’s reopening has been a disaster. It does not validate the government’s prior “zero Covid” policy but illustrates everything wrong with the nation’s dictatorial political system.
On March 19, 2022, while Covid-19 spread worldwide like wildfire, China’s dictator Xi Jinping declared he had won the “people’s war” against the pandemic. Such a victory was meant to serve as indisputable evidence that China’s one-party political system is superior to the democracies of the West.
Xi’s declaration of victory was premature. After putting the Chinese people through almost three years of hell with mass testing, invasive contact tracing, prolonged lockdowns, forced quarantine, and economic hardship, China was the last major economy to reopen, and its reopening in the wake of the “zero covid” policy has been chaotic and scary.
Hospitals have reportedly reached capacity with overflowing patients and mortuaries nationwide working overtime as bodies piled up. Pharmacies have emptied shelves as they run out of basic cold and fever medicine such as ibuprofen. Factories face shortages of workers as many of them call in sick.
American companies in China have also been affected. For example, Tesla had to shut down its factory in Shanghai between Dec. 25 and Jan. 1 amid rising Covid infections among its employees. Zhejiang province, a manufacturing hub where many Apple suppliers reside, struggled to keep its factories open as it reported one million new Covid cases on Christmas day.
A leaked document from an internal meeting of China’s National Health Commission showed officials estimated that about 250 million Chinese people, or 18 percent of the Chinese population, might have been infected with Covid in the first 20 days of December. Yet the Chinese government’s official report insisted that Covid cases fell 47 percent to 4,666 in December, and the last seven days’ daily new death toll was either zero or a single digit.
Because Beijing’s official Covid data has been widely ridiculed as untrustworthy, Chinese health officials finally admitted they had changed their method of counting deaths caused by Covid-19 infections. Since the Chinese authorities have already undercounted Covid death tolls throughout the pandemic, the latest methodology change renders China’s official Covid data meaningless. Probably knowing no one trusts its numbers, China has stopped publishing daily Covid data since Christmas.
China’s disastrous reopening is not a validation of Beijing’s “zero Covid” policy but a refutation of it and an indictment of China’s political system. The nation is ruled by one party under one person, Xi, who officially made himself a dictator for life at the 20th Party Congress. By declaring a premature victory in early 2020 and tying the elimination of Covid-19 to his legacy and the supposed superiority of the Chinese Communist Party’s governance, Xi left no room for policy debates. His will became policies, no matter how preposterous they were.
Xi decided to close China’s borders and impose prolonged lockdowns, despite evidence from other countries showing such approaches are ineffective in containing Covid and have caused more harm than good. Driven by nationalist fever, Xi has refused to import foreign Covid vaccines even though they are more effective than ones manufactured in China.
According to Nikkei, “The vaccination rate among elderly people, who are more likely to become severely ill, is especially low because Chinese in their 60s and older grew up distrusting their government,” and they don’t want to get jabbed with made-in-China vaccines.
Xi’s policies have left the Chinese population vulnerable to Covid-19 variants due to low immunity levels. According to foreign experts, “the low immunity — down to poor vaccination rates and a lack of previous infections” are driving China’s current Covid surge. No matter how powerful Xi is, he cannot order a virus to disappear at will as he treats political dissidents.
China’s dictatorial political system also explains why the nation’s reopening has been so chaotic due to poor preparation. Chinese bureaucrats know too well that loyalty to Xi rather than competency will be rewarded, and their political survival depends on how well they serve Xi, not the Chinese people. These bureaucrats are known to hide the truth and bad news, avoid making decisions, wait to be told what to do by their superiors, and never challenge an order from the top, no matter how ridiculous it is or how much suffering it may cause the people.
For three years, China has told the Chinese people and the rest of the world that its draconian “zero Covid” policy was necessary to prevent a surge that would overwhelm the nation’s already inadequate health-care system. For example, as of 2020, China had 3.6 critical-care beds per thousand people, compared with 7.1 in Hong Kong.
Yet Xi’s “zero Covid” policy really increased his control over the Chinese people, not the virus. Therefore, during the last three years, Chinese officials focused on mass testing, building useless mass quarantine centers, controlling people’s movements, including welding doors to apartment entrances, and relying on a mandatory health app on smartphones to track everybody’s whereabouts.
Meanwhile, not enough was done to prepare the nation’s health-care system for reopening. New hospitals were not built, and crucial medications were not restocked. According to the Wall Street Journal, in 2021, the number of hospital beds in China was up less than 4 percent from a year earlier.
As late as mid-November, Xi still insisted publicly his “zero Covid” policy was here to stay. Thus, when he suddenly abandoned that policy, his underlings scrambled to carry out his order. The lack of preparation for reopening is evident as overflowing patients have overwhelmed the nation’s health-care system, and there are shortages of even basic cold and fever medications. But with no free press and no election, there are no mechanisms to hold Xi and his underlings accountable.
The Chinese people are not the only ones suffering from Xi’s destructive policies. Beijing announced that in early January, it would eliminate all Covid-19 quarantine measures for international and domestic travelers.
Public health officials and experts outside China warned that China is an “‘ideal’ breeding ground for risky variants because of how it has been sheltered from previous waves and has a low vaccine uptake.” If a new and more risky variant emerges and carries to the rest of the world by either Chinese travelers or those who traveled to China, it will have “the potential to send the world back to square one in its fight against the virus.”
China often proclaims that its one-party political system is much more efficient and capable of handling challenges such as a pandemic than western democracies. The Chinese government’s poor handling of Covid in the last three years and its chaotic reopening today have exposed its assertion of superiority as a lie.