“The political object is the goal, war is the means of reaching it, and means can never be considered in isolation from their purpose.” (von Clausewitz, On War)
Beijing’s zero-Covid policy was not sustainable. The highly publicized events in October and November in Urumqi, Xinjiang and at the Zhengzhou Foxconn factory served as the inciting events for what became a nationwide call for ending zero-Covid, giving people their freedoms — and there were even calls for Xi Jinping to step down. In the course of a week, Beijing went from touting zero-Covid to easing restrictions to censoring mentions of zero-Covid policy online.
In November in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, several residents, including four children, died in an apartment fire because emergency vehicles could not pass the lockdown barricades. Residents had trouble getting out of their apartments because their doors were sealed shut. The incident triggered widespread protests.
Earlier in the month, workers at the Zhengzhou Foxconn factory, or “iPhone City,” walked out because they had been subjected to inadequate, and at times inhumane, treatment due to Beijing’s Covid policies.
The government’s propaganda apparatus has sown fear over the coronavirus, even though population and laboratory studies show that omicron, among the variants encountered so far, is highly infectious but much less deadly than some other variants like delta. This is due, in part, to the fact that clinicians now have a better idea of how to treat Covid-19.
However, Beijing’s heavy-handed measures have kept China’s population from being exposed to the virus, even in its mildest forms. The theory behind any vaccine, including the Covid vaccine — of which China claims to have made the first — is that exposure leads to some level of immunity. Most people in the world have been exposed to SARS-CoV-2 either through vaccination or infection or both. Even if we were not exposed to the same variants, our immune system retains some memory of how to fight this virus. In China, however, massive lockdowns and poor vaccine uptake as well as immunity to the adenovirus that was used in China’s vaccine, mean its population does not have the same immunity to the SARS-CoV-2 virus. The result is that, with zero-Covid, the CCP has only managed to put off an inevitable conflict with the virus.
During that time, rather than preparing the healthcare system, Beijing focused on protecting the Party’s power. Even now, as Beijing lifts many of its pandemic policies, there seems to be no plan in place to deal with the influx of people that will overwhelm the already-strained healthcare system. The propaganda department, in contrast, has made a concerted effort to propagate the narrative that lifting zero-Covid was the plan all along in what the New York Times’ China correspondents call “an audacious revision of history.” They add, “While the rest of the world concluded months ago that the coronavirus was becoming less deadly, Beijing presented the development as fresh news to explain its abrupt decision to undo the lockdowns that prompted widespread protests.”
As the Times journalists point out, this complete change in the narrative around the omicron variant has to do with protecting Xi’s legacy and maintaining the Party’s status by not admitting failure. The CCP, yet again, is trying to control the narrative, just as it did in the early days of the pandemic. Xi had declared victory over the virus in 2020, tied his legitimacy to defeating the virus, and touted authoritarian governments for being better able to respond to the pandemic than the chaotic democratic ones. Now, we are told, lifting zero-Covid was the plan all along and news outlets are distancing Xi Jinping from zero-Covid.
Viral discontent spreads under Beijing’s authoritarian thumb
Beijing’s lockdowns may have curbed viral spread, but they were also successful at spreading discontent. The Foxconn protests, the protests over the Xinjiang fire in Shanghai and on university campuses, the “Bridge Man”, and others have inspired people across China to speak what they had previously kept within. Wu’er Kaixi, a leader in the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, told Jiayang Fan at The New Yorker, “For the first time, people see written on posters and placards what has been secretly buried in their hearts. That is meaningful in a way that can’t be readily measured.”
Fan’s article recounts how the recent protests echo protests in 1976 under Mao Zedong — whose slogan during the disastrous Great Leap Forward was “People must conquer nature.” One scholar told Fan that, while the 1989 protests were ones of defiance, today’s protest, like those in 1976, is one of desperation.
In 2020 Xi Jinping had declared “the people’s war” on the virus. Neither Mao nor Xi could conquer nature, but the Party will consider anyone who says that either man’s policy failed miserably as guilty of “historical nihilism.”
A war against nature is doomed to fail because, as von Clausewitz has said, war is not an exercise of the will directed at inanimate matter but directed at an animate object that reacts.
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