The Metamorphosis of Chinese Public Health into a Political Disaster

The Metamorphosis of Chinese Public Health into a Political Disaster

The recent “Blank Page” movement forced the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to adjust their Covid prevention policy, adopting literally overnight the “dynamic zero” policy while not mentioning “zero Covid.” Looking back at the evolution of the pandemic and the experience of various countries in their public health measures, it can be seen that the sudden Covid policy change introduced by CCP after the Blank Paper movement should have been implemented more than two years ago.  This compels us to ask why was this delayed until today, and who is to blame for the painful price paid by the Chinese during Zero-Covid and the current massive Covid wave that is hitting the Chinese population now.  

Recently, international public health experts, medical professional bodies, and the media have demonstrated that, on the one hand, the Zero-Covid policy is anti-scientific, anti-common sense and negates the humanity of the Chinese people.  It is unsustainable.  Lifting it is the right thing to do.  However, on the other hand, China will face a huge outbreak after lifting the Zero-Covid in an uncontrolled manner, and that will result in a dramatic increase in the number of infections and deaths in the near future.

To illustrate the current vulnerability of China to the new coronavirus Omicron strain, The Economist has created a model which predicts that if the virus spreads unchecked, China’s infection rate will peak at 45 million per day, approximately 680,000 people will die, and the demand for intensive care beds will reach 410,000, almost seven times the capacity of China. Other media and professional organizations have made similar or more serious predictions.

As the pandemic in China becomes more severe, it will lead to additional discontent and protests.  The CCP propaganda outlets will likely blame the protesters of the “Blank Page” Movement. The gist of this article is that, as many medical professionals and Chinese people who have experienced the containment firsthand have said, Xi Jinping’s Zero-Covid policy is anti-science, anti-common sense, and abolishes the humanity of the Chinese people.

It is unsustainable and must be lifted. After the removal of Zero-Covid, the CCP government should abandon the continued politicization of pandemic prevention and instead take scientific measures to minimize pending and future Covid waves. At the same time, it should made very clear that the culprit of the current inevitable Covid disaster in China is not the “Blank Page” movement but Xi Jinping and the CCP regime, who missed a two-year long golden window of opportunity to achieve herd immunity. China’s Covid prevention can be divided into six phases.

The 1st Phase: From the Outbreak of the Pandemic in late 2019 to the Wuhan Lockdown on January 23, 2020

According to our team’s detailed research report “The Great War on Pandemic: A Catastrophe That Could Have Been Avoided,” the highest levels of the CCP government knew about Covid by December 27, 2019 the latest.  But under Xi Jinping’s “personal deployment and personal command,” the CCP covered up the truth, suppressed freedom of expression—fabricated the infamous Dr. Li Wenliang confession incident—misled the world, missed the best opportunity to contain the virus during the initial outbreak, and thus committed a crime against humanity.

The 2nd phase: the Wuhan lockdown (January 23-April 8, 2020)

Although the lockdown of Wuhan created serious secondary disasters and caused some public discontent and protests, in general, at that time, the entire world knew little about the characteristics of the COVID virus, no country had developed a vaccine, and the whole world was scrambling to setup various preventive measures without experience, the Wuhan lockdown did prevent a large number of lives from being lost compared to other countries, and the objective results were positive.

However, during this period, Xi Jinping politicized the pandemic prevention in its entirety, publicly proclaiming that the fight against Covid in China was “personally deployed and personally commanded” by Xi, closely linking the success or failure of the pandemic prevention to Xi’s greatness and wisdom, and the superiority of China’s political system.

On February 26, 2020, the CCP launched the book “Great Nation’s Battle against the ‘Pandemic’ – China’s Fight Against the New Covid Pneumonia in 2020,” which according to an editorial in the Xinhua News Agency, “focuses on General Secretary Xi Jinping’s sentiment for the public, mission in responsibility, strategic vision and outstanding leadership as the leader of a great nation, and presents a panoramic view of the progress and positive trend of the people’s war, the overall war, and the war against the pandemic, under the centralized and unified leadership of the Party Central Committee with Comrade Xi Jinping at the core, with urgent mobilization and concerted efforts of the Chinese people. The remarkable advantages of the leadership of the CCP and the socialist system with Chinese characteristics, and demonstrates China’s great efforts to actively cooperate with the international community and jointly maintain global and regional public health security.”

Since then, the CCP has been adopting a policy of Zero-Covid with strict lockdowns under a highly political campaign until the emergence of the “Blank Page” movement most recently.

The 3rd Phase: The Two-Year Period between the End of the Wuhan Lockdown (April 8, 2020) to the Beijing Winter Olympics (February 2022)

This phase was absolutely a golden window to fully prepare medical resources, increase intensive care beds, protect high-risk groups, and fully invest in developing better vaccines and drive universal vaccination. However, during this period, Xi Jinping continues to further politicize the pandemic prevention, turning on the propaganda machine and mobilizing the diplomatic system to engage in a war of disinformation regarding the origin of the virus, with the official debut of “wolf warrior diplomacy.”

On June 7, 2020, the CCP government released a white paper on “China’s Actions to Combat the New Coronary Pneumonia Pandemic,” which not only continues to proclaim that Xi’s personal command and decisive decisions “have strengthened confidence, rallied strength, and pointed the way for the Chinese people to fight the pandemic;” but also to have “shared with the international community China’s experience and practices in fighting the pandemic, and clarified China’s philosophy and ideas in the global fight against the pandemic.” China’s experience in fighting the pandemic, called “people first”, was presented: “putting people’s lives and health in the first place, adopting the most comprehensive, strict and thorough prevention and control measures with firm and bold courage and determination, and effectively interrupting the virus transmission chain.” At a time when the world, especially the U.S. and Europe, was still in the grip of Covid, China’s success in fighting the pandemic undoubtedly demonstrated Xi Jinping’s wisdom and the superiority of the Chinese system, according to the logic of the CCP.

In October 2020, China held a commendation conference for fighting the pandemic, wrote Xi Jinping’s achievements in clearing Covid into the textbooks, and started to advocate for “East Rising West Falling,” and so was becoming more and more self-confident and arrogant. When the pandemic first broke out, due to the initial lack of understanding of the virus’ characteristics there were no medical means to deal with it yet, and pandemic prevention at that stage was mainly a matter of social control in public governance.

As more is learned about Covid and the consequent introduction of medical means to deal with it, the focus of pandemic prevention policy must shift away from social control. By the end of 2020, when the West started to produce mRNA vaccines and China launched its traditional inactivated vaccines, the main task in each country was vaccination drives to achieve herd immunity.

However, the order of vaccination in China is the opposite of almost all countries. While others start vaccination from protection of the elderly and high-risk groups with underlying diseases, curiously China started from non-risk groups. At first, people were puzzled, but later they realized that the Chinese government knew that the vaccines produced in China were relatively less effective than mRNA vaccines, and if they result in sequelae then they are more likely to occur in the elderly and in people with underlying diseases.

According to medical reviews, even if the traditional inactivated vaccines developed and produced in China are not as effective as mRNA vaccines, they are still effective in preventing severe Covid outcomes at ~70%, and Chinese leaders should set an example by publicly vaccinating themselves and encouraging low-risk groups to be fully vaccinated, while importing mRNA vaccines which is at 90% effectiveness to vaccinate high-risk groups. mRNA vaccines have been updated with the Omicron variants of the virus, and according to the latest reports, Western leaders have advised Xi Jinping to introduce the most effective mRNA vaccines to maximize the protection of high-risk groups, but Xi Jinping has refused – his narrow nationalist sentiment, his self-perceived wisdom and greatness, the myth of the superiority of CCP’s political system and “East Rising West Falling,” all depended on the success of his Zero-Covid policy. Thus, Xi had to maintain and normalize the most comprehensive, strict, and thorough prevention and control measures to eliminate the virus.

At this time, most countries in the world began to gradually relax social restrictions, social and economic life gradually returned to normal, public health professional conclusions as well as the practice of the international community pointed in the opposite direction of Xi’s Zero-Covid policy. Chinese cities of all sizes took turns to lockdown, secondary disasters of strict Zero-Covid began to occur frequently in China. Zero-Covid caused a heavy blow to the economy, and opinions begin to appear in China to relax lockdown and coexist with Covid. Chinese infectious disease expert Zhang Wenhong assessed the pandemic in a late-night Weibo post on July 29, 2021, suggesting that China should learn from the international community and change its Zero-Covid policy to prepare to coexist with the virus.

However, subsequently, the People’s Daily’s published an article by Gao Qiang, former Chinese Minister of Health, criticizing Zhang Wenhong’s views without naming him. Gao Qiang was a senior official in leading China’s fight against the SARS epidemic in 2002 and is currently the general advisor of the China Health Management Association. In his article, Gao Qiang used strong language in the style of the Cultural Revolution, arguing that human beings and viruses should have a relationship of ” with you without me, you die and I live” and that China should “wipe out the virus in the waves of people’s war.”

Chinese officials have completely ignored Dr. Li Wenliang’s lesson that “a healthy society cannot have only one voice” and have suppressed dissent. In one word, it is still not possible to “dissent from the central government.”

According to the historical resolution of the 6th Plenary Session of the 19th CCO Central Committee held in October 2021, Xi’s new era was summarized in 13 achievements, one of which was the achievement of fighting against Covid. This achievement, as propagated by the CCP, is the most direct proof of the superiority of China’s “whole process of people’s democracy” under Xi Jinping’s leadership.

From the end of 2021 to the beginning of 2022, there are Covid emergencies in cities all over the country, and this is before the Winter Olympics in Beijing. Xi wanted to make the Winter Olympics a major sporting event to demonstrate the superiority of CCP’s system and its achievements in fighting Covid.  Moreover, he wanted to demonstrate to the world that China, unlike Japan, can control Covid and host a wonderful Olympics. For this reason, China increased its Zero-Covid efforts to prevent Covid rebounds during the Winter Olympics and secondary disasters remained frequent.

At the April 8, 2022, Beijing Winter Olympics colluding ceremony, Xi continued to trumpet the achievements of his Zero policy, saying in his speech that some foreign athletes said, “If there is a gold medal for pandemic responses, China should get one.”

During this third phase of the nearly two-year epidemic preparedness, China has implemented health codes to provide comprehensive surveillance of society. While the prevention of the epidemic led directly to this tighter and more comprehensive control of society than before the outbreak, it undoubtedly provided Xi Jinping with the mantra and means to ensure secure political control on his path to a third term, the state apparatus to allocate resources to be skilled in this comprehensive control, and the people to accept and get used to such control.

The 4th Phase: From the end of the Beijing Winter Olympics to the Lockdown of Shanghai

After the Beijing Winter Olympics, the new coronavirus variant Omicron entered China. The first case of Omicron was found in South Africa on November 24, 2021 and had been raging in other countries around the world for several months before invading China. By then, the international medical agencies had accumulated a wealth of information in dealing with it. Since the incubation period of Omicron in the human body is much shorter than that of the previous variant strains, the rate of transmission is accelerated.

The Omicron strain multiplies in the upper respiratory tract an order of magnitude faster than its predecessor, the Delta strain, but its toxicity is relatively lower, the rate of serious illness is lower, and the rate of death is lower than that of the previous variant strains, nevertheless it is 1.4 times higher than the rate of death from severe colds, and Omicron Deaths are mostly concentrated in the elderly and in high-risk groups with underlying diseases. Based on these scientific facts, the logical outcome is clear: not only is it no longer possible or necessary to fully contain Omicron, but universal vaccination, public health education on personal protection, the gradual learning of the population to calculate their acceptable and affordable risks, and the focus of medical resources on the protection of high-risk groups are the only correct path forward.

Neighboring countries around China with similar population density gradually relaxed their anti-pandemic policies during this period, such as Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, etc. During the baptism of Omicron, they introduced mRNA vaccine to protect the high-risk groups as much as possible, and at the same time made good allocation of public health resources to cope with the situation.

However, the CCP did the opposite – anti-scientific and anti-common sense, stubbornly insisting on strict Zero-Covid containment of the Omicron strain, implementing a more brutal Zero policy, continuing to refuse to introduce mRNA vaccine, and investing all political, economic, and social resources in crazy daily PCR testing for all people and comprehensive control of the people. While to justify the Zero policy, the official media carried out deceptive propaganda and exaggerated the Omicron virus. exaggerated its toxicity and after-effects of Omicron, exaggerated the worst outcome of Covid, and created widespread panic among the population.

The fundamental political objectives for Xi Jinping in 2022 was to keep his personal power to ensure that he stepped into permanent power at the 20th CCP Congress in October.  Thus, he needed to maintain his political authority and prestige, which are closely tied to his two hand-picked political goals: one is Zero-Covid, and the other is to grow the economy by 5.5 percent in 2022. However, any rational assessment would not be optimistic about achieving these two mutually offsetting goals at the same time.  Nonetheless, Xi, the archetype of the stubborn and ignorant political leader, began to evolve from political dictatorship to a form of political gambling by moving ahead with both the Zero-Covid policy and the 2022 economic growth target.

In March, Xi’s insistence on Zero-Covid seemed to loosen to alleviate the public discontent caused by the frequent occurrence of humanitarian disasters secondary to the Zero-Covid policy. The strict control of people’s basic socio-economic life, and the overall pressure on economic growth caused by the lockdowns risked Xi’s second political goal of 5.5% growth.

In his speech at the March 17 meeting of the CCP Standing Committee of the Central Committee on pandemic control, in addition to “adhering to the dynamic Zero; do not waver,” he proposed for the first time “to improve the level of scientific and precise prevention and control, constantly optimize pandemic initiatives, strengthen vaccines, rapid detection reagents and drugs to make the prevention and control tasks more targeted. To maintain strategic determination, adhere to the stability of seeking progress, coordinate the prevention and control of the pandemic and economic and social development, take more effective measures, and strive to achieve the maximum effect of prevention and control at minimal cost, and minimize the impact of the pandemic on economic and social development.”

Extrapolating from the fact that Li Qiang, the CCP Secretary of Shanghai, who was not successful in Shanghai’s Zero-Covid control, rose to the number two position in the CCP hierarchy at the 20th National Congress, the “scientific and precise prevention and control” that began in Shanghai at the end of March was not the result of Li Qiang’s departure from Xi’s Zero mandate. However, as we have argued, because the government has long misled the public about the pandemic, without proper understanding of the virus and due to the fact that the government missed the opportunity to prepare medical resources and actively drive mass vaccination for high-risk groups, Covid rebounded in Shanghai as soon as Zero-Covid was loosened.

Thus, Xi’s first political goal of Zero-Covid faced collapse, causing a panic in Xi and the CCP government then quickly locked down the city for more than three months. Meanwhile, 373 million people in some 70 cities in China, or about one-third of the country’s population, were under some form of lockdowns. The endless humanitarian disasters and the stagnation of people’s socio-economic lives caused by Xi’s brutal Zero policy have led to a simmering of public discontent across the country.

The 5th Phase: The End of Shanghai Lockdown to the Outbreak of the “Blank Page” Movement

Given the lessons learned from Shanghai, the Chinese government should have mended its ways by quickly adjusting its pandemic policies, investing political, social, and economic resources in preparing public health care, protecting high-risk populations, and properly educating the public.  In other words, making comprehensive preparations for zoning and gradual opening. However, at that time Xi was fully concentrating on the upcoming 20th CCP Congress, which in his words is the “highest politics” of all.  One can deduce that the resistance to Xi’s “highest politics” was everywhere within CCP. Xi’s biggest worry was that people’s dissatisfaction will turn into a real political challenge.

Therefore, his greatest political demand was to implement a comprehensive control over party members and the public. Of course, this compels the question whether there is there any more convenient way to maintain stability and control than locking down a city.  What is more, he learned a negative lesson in Shanghai. Once the Zero-Covid policy is loosened, Covid cases will rebound at any time. The increase in the number of infections and deaths will be very bad for him politically at the coronation ceremony at the 20th National Congress. Therefore, the Zero-Covid policy not only continued but intensified, a greater proportion of political, social, and economic resources are invested in lockdowns, and the daily PCR testing of the entire population.

The more Xi Jinping gambles, the crazier he gets, the more absurd and brutal the Zero policy becomes, and the people’s resentment continues to grow. However, at this time people have a common expectation.  That is, after CCP’s 20th National Congress, Xi and the CCP will not stubbornly insist on the Zero-Covid policy. Everyone understands how important the 20th National Congress is to Xi Jinping. If you want to have control and the maintenance of stability, you can have control and the maintenance of stability. Even if your coronation is more poisonous than a virus, it will pass quickly at the least. This seems to be an unwritten contract between the people and Xi Jinping. Even though there was widespread public attention and respect for the lone courageous incident in Beijing’s SiTong Bridge that shocked the world by protesting against Xi Jinping and his Zero-Covid policy, people continued to hold back due to the common expectations.

The successful coronation of Xi Jinping at the 20th CCP Congress and the results of his personnel layout in the CCP hierarchy dealt a heavy blow to all segments of the Chinese society and a heavy blow to people’s confidence in China’s politics and economy. What is more serious is that after the 20th National Congress, Xi will continue to maintain political stability and social control for the political layout of the “Two Sessions” in March next year. Insufficient preparation, once the Zero-Covid policy is abandoned, not only will bankrupt his “personally deploy and personally command” pandemic achievements, but the pandemic itself will also make him lose face.

At the 20th National Congress, he was coronated as the General Secretary of the CCP. The constitutional revision in March 2018 changed the presidential term system, and his “re-election” at the “Two Sessions” in March next year will be his biggest political and symbolic victory. Although the State Council issued the “Notice on Further Optimizing the Prevention and Control Measures of the New Coronary Pneumonia and Doing a Scientific and Accurate Prevention and Control Work,” the main tone of the CCP is still to unswervingly adhere to the dynamic Zero policy. The government continues to implement Zero-Covid and lockdowns.

People are finally awakened. Covid is impossible to be zeroed out, so Xi’s Zero-Covid policy can last forever, and Xi has the ongoing need to combine Zero-Covid with the maintenance of political stability. Basic survival, freedom and rights, and the dignity of being a human being are suppressed nonstop, with no end in sight, and so the despair of the Chinese people grows.  As series of events demonstrated, a Guizhou bus overturned, Foxconn employees fled, Urumqi fire burned adults and children who were sealed inside their homes, etc., people can no longer tolerate this situation.  Thus, the nation-wide “Blank Page” protest movement broke out.

The 6th Phase: From the post-“Blank Page” Movement to the Present

After the “Blank Page” Campaign, Xi was forced to finally acknowledge the public discontent caused by three years of non-stop Zero-Covid and lockdowns. In some cities and regions, PCR test sites disappeared overnight, but PCR result was still needed to enter public places, causing the people and local governments to be at each other’s throats and creating new public grievances.  Without a clear central directive, local governments would rather stay “left” than “right” and dare not fully liberalize.

Simply put, the sudden ending the Zero-Covid policy is a reaction to the “Blank Page” movement to reduce public pressure, and the CCP authorities themselves have not yet set out the details of how to properly loosen the policy, resulting in different responses from local governments. Moreover, some local governments are continuing the Zero-Covid policy.

Recently, the CCP issued the “Notice on Further Optimizing the Implementation of Measures to Prevent and Control the New Pneumonia Pandemic,” the so-called “New Ten Measures” on Covid prevention. Taking a closer look at the Ten Measures introduced by the CCP, people cannot help asking whether each of these should be implemented in the 3rd phase as stated above and should be implemented in the 4th and 5th phases at the latest. Hence, people wonder why the delay.

At present, China’s Omicron infection rate is only about 0.13%, which is far from the level required for herd immunity. The Chinese people have to pay the price for Xi’s serious politicization of pandemic prevention, stubborn insistence on Zero-Covid and delaying the overall strategy of “coexisting with the virus.” In a sense, after three years of performative Zero-Covid politics, the pandemic has just begun in China, with no better preparation of public health facilities nor full vaccination drive to protect high-risk groups.

As China suddenly loosens its Covid restrictions, the country is expected to face a major outbreak in the next few months. Feng Zijian, former deputy director of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, recently told China Youth Daily that the first wave of a massive infections in China could infect up to 60 percent of the population, and eventually, about 80 to 90 percent, or 1 billion people, compared to the more than 640 million people worldwide who are currently infected. The lack of vaccination for the Omicron variant will be a challenge for China, where according to official statistics, 44% of the population (638 million) has not received their booster shots and 60% of the population over 80 years old (21 million) has not received a single shot.

It is certain that there will be multiple Covid outbreaks in China, and CCP’ policies are expected to be going back and forth and the public’s emotions ebbing and flowing with it. The Covid disaster is just starting in China, far from over. We must emphasize that no matter the calamity of Zero-Covid and city lockdowns or the calamity Covid outbreaks after liberalization, there is only one root cause, and that is Xi Jinping.

Faced with the Covid pandemic, Xi Jinping is caught in a dilemma, turning a public health crisis into a personal and even political crisis for his regime. Xi will of course continue to gamble, and if he moves forward in his current state, his political bets will get bigger and riskier. We do not predict when Xi’s politics will end, but the many threads in this pandemic suggest that Xi’s politics have generated increasing suspicion, loathing, and challenges to his rule. It is far-fetched to blame bad luck for one’s constant troubles.

Our understanding is that actions that go against reason and nature are destined to meet with setbacks and make conflicts abound. A disaster that could have been completely avoided has developed to what it is today, and the impact on the subsequent social functioning and economic operation will be huge.  At the same time, economic difficulties will increase the probability of various black swan and gray rhinoceros events, so secondary disasters will follow, and the internal pressure for change will become increasingly stronger. Not only will the international image of the CCP be greatly damaged, but international factors may also become more of an external force forcing change in China.

Xi Jinping’s politics is no longer a mystery, there is only so much drama left, his political image is now basically fixed.  Few people have fantasies.  There are disappointed and discontented people are all over the country.  Xi’s politics will become the focus of public or private complains, perhaps this is the most critical for his rule.  We firmly believe that if you always act contrary to the laws of nature, the laws of nature and common sense will forcefully react, stripping you of your illusions.

Jianli YangAustin LinBradley Thayer

Jianli Yang is founder and president of Citizen Power Initiatives for China, and the author of For Us, the Living:  A Journey to Shine Light on the Truth. Austin Lin is a scientist at the State University of New York and consultant to Citizen Power Initiatives for China.  Bradley A. Thayer is Director of China Policy at the Center for Security Policy.  He is the coauthor of Understanding the China Threat.