The Korea Herald


[Trudy Rubin] Xi Jinping is caught in his own COVID trap

By Korea Herald

Published : Dec. 5, 2022 - 05:22

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The video of "Chongqing Superman" has gone viral amidst the explosion of protests across China against the government's "zero COVID" policy.

A man in a grey T-shirt with a Superman backpack stands on a street corner in the southwest Chinese city of Chongqing, ranting against the soaring price of carrots -- and the government's failed strategy to totally eliminate COVID. He fiercely denounces the "lack of freedom and (the) poverty" that have resulted from an endless series of lockdowns of major cities, neighborhoods, and residential compounds.

"If the city government is wrong, it can only continue to be wrong," Chongqing Superman shouts to an equally furious crowd (according to a YouTube translation). "Otherwise someone must be responsible." The crowd cheers, and rescues Superman from the police who try to grab him.

No city officials will take responsibility for the human and economic disaster caused by a policy tightly tied to Chinese President Xi Jinping.

China's current COVID upheaval demonstrates what can happen when an absolute ruler rejects all criticism in the belief that he is infallible. The Beijing regime, with its massive surveillance apparatus, will probably crush the demonstrations, which are more of a warning to Xi than a threat to his political survival. Yet his botched war on the pandemic will undermine him at home and abroad.

The government's zero-COVID strategy of lockdowns -- barricading neighborhoods and sealing apartment doors -- has decimated Chinese businesses and impoverished many people. After two years, the population hoped for a relaxation of restrictions. Instead, they have reemerged in the wake of the omicron variant.

A deadly fire last week in China's Xinjiang province, where 10 people died because a COVID lockdown trapped the victims, ignited national rage, along with small but furious crowds in major cities and on elite college campuses.

"The 'zero-COVID' policy is a complete disaster for China," says the Council on Foreign Relations' China expert Joshua Kurlantzick. "If Xi keeps it up it will ruin their economy."

Yet Xi shows no signs of changing course.

Kurlantzick, author of the new book, "Beijing's Global Media Offensive: China's Uneven Campaign to Influence Asia and the World," believes the onetime lure of the Chinese model of authoritarian rule has dimmed in Asia and elsewhere over the past three years, as Xi eliminated any curbs on his power.

The Chinese leader managed to get his country's constitution amended in October to permit him an unprecedented third term, and has elevated himself to the status of another Mao Zedong. Before Xi, notes Kurlantzick, a group of eight to 15 top officials around the president were involved in running China. "In the past," he says, "they could change a policy because it was not linked to one man who gutted all other sources of information."

Kurlantzick's point reminded me of a 2010 interview I conducted with Chinese Health Minister Chen Zhu in Beijing. He emphasized the need for Chinese media and nongovernmental organizations to provide an alternative source of information to government officials in order to prevent future health disasters.

"SARS has taught us a very good lesson," the minister said, referring to a 2002 epidemic in China that broke out because local officials refused to report it. "Now we emphasize information transparency and immediate disclosure."

Instead, Xi has censored all information sources that might challenge his COVID policy (which is why Chinese demonstrators are holding up blank white sheets of paper). He has stuck by rolling lockdowns, mass testing and tracing without a serious vaccine policy as a follow-up.

That draconian approach worked for two years -- keeping deaths extremely low in comparison with the United States and Europe. But it has faltered with the emergence of omicron and other variants. Meantime, the population developed no natural immunity.

As successful vaccines came on line, Xi opted for vaccine nationalism. China refused to import foreign vaccines based on mRNA technology, which are far more effective than Chinese-made vaccines. Moreover, China's elderly are woefully under vaccinated.

"If they get rid of this lockdown policy, they could lose millions of old people," says Kurlantzick.

In other words, Xi Jinping has backed himself into a self-made COVID trap.

According to a recent Atlantic Council study, China's COVID shutdowns have deeply harmed the domestic economy -- especially the entertainment, restaurant, tourism and other service industries, along with the property and construction sectors -- that provide a large share of the country's employment.

Add this to Xi's crackdown on China's tech sector, the new US limits on exports to China of sophisticated computer chips, and pressures from a roiling global economy, and China's growth rate is predicted to slow to 3.2 percent for 2022. This would be fine for a developed Western country, but is far below the official Chinese target of 5.5 percent, which is in line with Xi's efforts to best the West.

Yet it is Xi's self-image as an infallible leader that is most at risk of cracking alongside his COVID policy. He has established a personality cult that forces students, bureaucrats and businesses to study Xi Jinping Thought — recalling the days when Chinese used to memorize Mao's teachings from his "Little Red Book."

When I last visited China in November 2019, a whole wing of the National Museum of China was devoted to extolling Xi's brilliance, in a fashion that made him appear almost godlike.

Both in his own speeches and in Communist Party propaganda, he is extolled with praise for China's zero-COVID policy that has supposedly succeeded where the rest of the world has failed.

Now the Chinese leader is backed into a corner. Like Russia's Vladimir Putin, he has crushed all challengers and critics of his mistaken policy. If he sticks to his COVID approach, he will be saddled with endless lockdowns that undermine China's economy. If he admits failure, his "mandate from heaven" will be seriously tarnished.

Either way, he has shown that self-isolated authoritarian leaders hold the seeds of their own destruction. The big question is: How long does it take?

Trudy Rubin

Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer. -- Ed.

(Tribune Content Agency)