Beijing’s Zero-Covid Flip-Flop: Policymaking in Xi’s “New Era”
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Beijing’s Zero-Covid Flip-Flop
Policymaking in Xi’s "New Era"

by William C. McCahill Jr.
January 18, 2023

In building a personality cult around him, Xi Jinping’s propagandists have published reams of “important speeches” and other expressions of “Xi Jinping Thought.” The bulkiest tome among those is Governing China, a thick anthology of platitudes that party cadres have been forced to buy and that foreign businesses have willingly bought to curry favor. What does China’s sudden shift in dealing with Covid-19 say about Xi’s governance?

Xi Jinping’s sudden, bewildering turn from draconian zero-Covid quarantines, lockdowns, and mass testing to a “let ‘er rip” policy will mean sickness, death, sorrow, dashed dreams, and destroyed wealth for millions of Chinese. Another, though far less tragic, casualty of Xi’s volte-face will be foreign investors’ and policymakers’ confidence in China’s governance. When a life-or-death paradigm can turn on a dime, how should we judge the governing competence of Xi’s regime?

Why, after more than two years of relentlessly enforcing zero-Covid restrictions, however unscientific those were, and touting China’s success under Xi’s “overall command,” did Beijing abruptly reverse itself? No official answer will be given, leaving Chinese citizens and foreign observers to speculate on how the mysterious machinery of the party-state works under Xi’s one-man “management.” Always opaque, politicized, and driven by personalities—especially that of the general secretary—Beijing’s policy decisions in Xi’s reign seem to have lost both the internal give-and-take and the wider stakeholder consultations that characterized the tenures of Xi’s predecessors, particularly the Jiang Zemin–Zhu Rongji duumvirate.

The historic Covid-19 pandemic challenged governments around the globe. China’s patchy public health system and authoritarian political culture made its challenges even more acute. China’s long first phase of pandemic policies used the party’s time-tested controls on information and the movement of people—control being the dominant gene in the party’s code—in an unscientific attempt to suppress, if not eradicate, the virus. Xi himself and the party propaganda megaphones boasted of their unique success. Though at terrible cost to public morale and the national economy, this approach worked…until it didn’t.

By mid-November—after the 20th Party Congress had crowned Xi for his third term as general secretary, and he had resumed international travel in triumphant style—the grave costs of his zero-Covid policy could no longer be hidden. Deaths, particularly of older Chinese and, of greater political sensitivity, party elders, increased dramatically as the virus spread; economic growth had slid precipitously; and citizen anger flared in public demonstrations and across social media. So many and so complex had become the challenges, and so suddenly did they seem to arise, that they sprained the party’s hamstrings and pushed the Xi leadership not just to control but to govern. That they were unable to do.

For a spell, an omnipresent regime that had misinformed its citizens and capriciously intruded in their private lives for two-plus years went missing. Citizens were left angry, anxious, and unprepared; the medical system was soon overwhelmed; and the party wordsmiths thumbed their thesaurus trying to write a narrative that would show Xi in charge.

In recent weeks, the party-state has begun to recover its balance, and its control gene has reasserted itself—by arresting young demonstrators, for example. But this partial recovery, amid the pandemic’s continuing explosion across China, has not quieted questions about why and how the zero-Covid policy was abruptly reversed. To Xi’s Chinese critics, the sudden shift seems a decision made more on one man’s word than after careful review by experts and vigorous debate within the party’s top echelons. While the Politburo might be in its post-Congress transition, such an about-face would also seem of a piece with practices Xi has developed over his ten-year reign. By arrogating to himself as “chairman of everything” the myriad functions once lodged in China’s State Council, by imposing “top-level design” on the civilian bureaucracy and the “chairman responsibility system” on the army, and, above all, by demanding absolute political fealty to himself, Xi has concentrated power and decision-making in ways not seen in China for 40 years.

The 20th Party Congress, “victoriously concluded” just months ago, cemented Xi’s autocracy into the party’s highest echelons. A Politburo Standing Committee composed entirely of Xi’s acolytes will steer China day to day, buttressed by a slightly more eclectic Politburo of state enterprise managers, a career secret policeman, and an aged general. These two dozen cadres are men who have earned Xi’s trust and who will not likely question his decisions.

Party hierarchy aside, Xi’s first two terms have shown him to be a leader who launches high-profile programs with great fanfare, only to drop them when implementation proves hard or he loses interest. A list might include the Belt and Road Initiative, now foundering for lack of funds and pushback from state banks; the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, now a footnote of its former self; and China’s “new capital district” in the Hebei marshlands, now a multibillion-dollar zombie town. Even the needless Beijing Stock Exchange and a farcical nationwide trash separation campaign have slipped into oblivion. No wonder Chinese social media wags have dubbed Xi the “half-baked kid” (lan wei ge, or 爛尾哥)—the guy who starts building a house but abandons the project midway when his interest flags or his money runs out.

While Xi’s political guile may have shaped the party hierarchy to his liking, the rank and file of China’s enormous party-state bureaucracy have also been affected by his leadership style. Years of “anticorruption” campaigns, incessant political indoctrination and surveillance, clear signs that political loyalty counts more for promotion than policy expertise and initiative, and most recently their forced-draft mobilization into the “zero-Covid struggle” have left Chinese bureaucrats demoralized and listless. Party propaganda and even Xi himself suggest the depth of this bureaucratic malaise by the regular calls not to “lie flat” (tang ping, or 躺平), netizen slang for doing as little work as possible. Calculating their risk-reward ratios, today’s Chinese Communist cadres have little taste for undertaking the policy “experiments” that guided economic reforms twenty years ago.

The People’s Republic’s seven decades have been marked by periods where ideology, though never entirely absent from Communist rule, has driven policy and by periods where more pragmatic approaches prevailed. Ideology and pragmatism oscillated with each period’s leadership. Put simplistically, the Mao era saw ideology in command. Mao’s successors—until Xi—tended to opt for practical solutions to the complex challenges of China’s economic development. It is no secret among thoughtful Chinese that Xi aims to emulate Mao, even though he lacks Mao’s charisma and revolutionary credentials.

If Xi’s zero-Covid flip-flop shows the template for how he will rule for however long he reigns, China risks repeating some of the Great Helmsman’s follies, though one hopes without the violence and death that marked the Mao decades. Mao’s practices might appeal to Xi and to others nostalgic for the simpler, if poorer, China of their youth. But they are not likely to sustain the economic growth of China’s past four decades, nor will they find favor with the millions of Chinese who have come to enjoy the country’s new wealth and opportunities. Foreign investors and policymakers who long for Chinese leaders to do business as Xi’s immediate predecessors did will have to adjust their sights and look deeper into modern Chinese history.

William C. McCahill Jr. is a member of NBR’s Board of Advisors. Before joining NBR, he worked in Hong Kong and China as the senior advisor for China at Mirabaud & Cie, and earlier in a similar capacity for Religare Capital Markets. A 25-year Foreign Service career preceded his business activities. He began his diplomatic service in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Beijing; subsequently held senior posts at U.S. missions in Western Europe, Scandinavia, and Canada; and in 2000 retired from his last posting as chargé d’affaires at the U.S. embassy in Beijing.