China's president Xi Jinping has staked his political standing and reputation on zero-Covid for almost three years.
He has praised the hardline policy for "putting people and their lives first" and touted its success as evidence of the supremacy of China's authoritarian system, branding himself as the "commander-in-chief" of a "people's war" against the virus.
Xi has since become silent as his expensive policy is abruptly abandoned in the wake of widespread opposition to it.
Covid testing stations, health code scanning signs, and lockdown barriers are being taken down quickly all around the nation. Authorities have abandoned virus-tracking software and have stopped reporting asymptomatic illnesses, which made up the majority of the nation's reported cases as viruses spread rapidly. As cities reduce the use of mass testing and permit people to employ antigen tests to isolate at home, the remaining cases have also lost all significance.
While the loosening of constraining regulations is a long-overdue release for many who have grown weary of the negative economic and social effects of zero-Covid, its abruptness and haphazardness have alarmed, bewildered, or worried citizens.
The general populace is now instructed to be "the first responsible person for your own health" — or, in essence, to fend for themselves — after having their daily lives controlled by Covid regulations imposed by the state and dread of the virus induced by propaganda throughout the pandemic.
State-run media and health authorities have shifted from warning about the virus's dangers to downplaying their concern. Top Covid-19 expert and prominent public spokesperson Zhong Nanshan proposed on Thursday that Omicron should actually be dubbed "coronavirus cold" due to its similar fatality rate to seasonal flu and restricted lung infection.
Antigen testing and over-the-counter medications are in short supply at pharmacies and online retailers in Beijing as a result of citizens' hasty purchases of these items. People stay at home to recuperate from Covid or to prevent getting the disease, leaving streets and commercial centers practically deserted.
The rest of the country is anticipated to follow, if not already in the thick of, the extraordinary coronavirus epidemic that has gripped the Chinese capital.
Throughout, Xi has kept quiet in public about the crucial change and the ensuing upheaval.
The top official was last seen on November 10 at a meeting of the Communist Party's ruling Politburo, leading the fight against Covid, according to state media. He made a promise to carry out "dynamic zero-Covid" there "unwaveringly," while limiting its effects on the economy and society. He challenged leaders to effectively influence public emotion and steer public opinion, promising to "resolutely win the struggle."
The Chinese government responded the following day by releasing 20 new guidelines for "optimizing" COVID measures to reduce their impact on daily life and the economy, while adamantly stating that "it was not an easing of control, let alone reopening or "lying flat""—a term used to describe doing the bare minimum.
However, given Omicron's high rate of transmission, Xi's instructions for both viral eradication and economic stability proved to be an impossible task for local authorities. Local officials implemented severe lockdowns and quarantines as cases increased around Beijing, Guangzhou, and Chongqing, dashing public hopes for a break from the strangling measures that have upended lives, closed businesses, and resulted in an ever-growing litany of catastrophes.
Then, a fatal apartment fire in the western city of Urumqi served as the breaking point, causing a general outcry from those who had had enough. The nation-wide zero-Covid protests were the most overt challenge to Xi's authority since he took office.
The zero-Covid regime was swiftly and thoroughly overthrown, and propaganda messaging quickly turned around. The transition was required due to the financial cost, economic hardship, and unstoppable nature of a highly contagious virus, but it took an unprecedented outburst of discontent to compel the government to quicken the long-overdue process.
Yanzhong Huang, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, said: "It just demonstrates how critical these social protests were in convincing the top leader himself it's the time to move on." Otherwise, it couldn't be understood why, just prior to the protests, they were intensifying their efforts to implement zero-Covid and rolling back their relaxation policy.
It is remarkable how little the administration has planned for such a major departure from the strategy given its fixation with maintaining control. The nation hasn't done enough to prepare, including raising the elderly immunization rate, expanding hospital capacity for emergency and critical care, and storing antiviral drugs.
The party's propaganda machine is already portraying a China advancing "from success to fresh victory" even as foreign experts warn of a grim winter ahead, with some research estimating over a million Covid fatalities.
A front-page column in the People's Daily, the party's official newspaper, on Thursday delivered a favorable assessment of the nation's three-year campaign against Covid. The verdict: Xi's strategy has always been "absolutely correct."
"The reality has amply demonstrated the accuracy, science, and effectiveness of our pandemic policy. It has the people's support and can withstand the test of time, according to the 11,000-word piece, which referenced Shanghai's traumatic two-month lockdown as a noteworthy accomplishment.
The statement read, "After three years of work, we have the circumstances, processes, teams, and medicine to lay the groundwork for an overall triumph in the battle against the pandemic.
According to the official story, the party, and hence its supreme leader Xi, are infallible. Parts of the public will always remember their lived experience during zero-Covid, including the frustration of being confined to home for weeks or even months on end, the desperation of losing jobs and income, and the heartbreak of witnessing loved ones being denied emergency medical care because of strict lockdowns. Regardless of how much the party tries to rewrite history and manipulate the collective memory of the Chinese people, some of the public will always remember their lived experience during zero-Covid. Some people's faith in the government has been permanently damaged.
Dali Yang, a political scientist at the University of Chicago, remarked, "Going back decades, society in China has suffered a lot of scars." "Generational scars are numerous, and there have been many of them. And this is one of them in some ways," he remarked, referring to the anguish caused by zero-Covid.
Chinese officials, medical professionals, and state media have justified the quick withdrawal as being in line with science by pointing to the Omicron variant's lower lethality.
However, Omicron first surfaced almost a year ago, and experts claim that instead of immunizing the elderly or expanding ICU capacity during the past few months, the government has wasted a lot of time and resources on mass testing and constructing temporary quarantine facilities.
"Stop being so pristine. "Do you truly not understand what led to the reopening?" read a Weibo comment.
Why, therefore, did (the government) decide to back off and open up in the winter? Why didn't it succeed in the spring or summer instead? The Party Congress in October was mentioned in a Weibo comment, along with the question, "Why did it have to wait until after the big meeting?"
Some people who have not personally experienced the impact as much—or who believe the impact to be a worthwhile sacrifice—are still in favor of zero-Covid and fear having the virus. They have placed the blame for the limitations being lifted on those who advocated for their reopening, including the protestors who walked to the streets to make their case, rather than investigating why the administration had not made appropriate preparations before abruptly lifting the limits.
Some observers think Beijing needed a political off-ramp to get out of zero-Covid, and the protests gave it a good reason to do so - even though it couldn't publicly admit the protests happened to the Chinese people. Some demonstrators demanded the party and Xi's resignation in addition to an end to Covid lockdowns, in an unprecedented show of political rebellion against the nation's most powerful and autocratic leader in decades.
Unsurprisingly, a top-ranking Chinese ambassador has said that foreign adversaries are igniting a "color revolution" and "seizing the chance for politicization."
Lu Yashi, China's ambassador to France, told French journalists at an embassy event last week: "Initially, people took to the streets to express their dissatisfaction with how local governments were unable to fully and accurately implement measures introduced by the central government, but the protests were quickly exploited by foreign forces."
The party's go-to response to popular discontent is to place the blame on regional governments and foreign powers. But because he has concentrated unheard-of authority in his own hands, Xi naturally bears personal responsibility for the party's policies and how they are carried out. And since he is so tightly linked to zero-Covid, he is also responsible for any possible consequences of its abrupt termination.
The party's boasts about "putting people's lives first" will seem hollow if the wave of widespread diseases causes a spike in deaths, especially among the frail old. Authorities may attempt to conceal the number of Covid fatalities (experts have long questioned China's arbitrary criteria for recording Covid deaths), but it will be more challenging to conceal the lengthy lineups and corpse bags at funeral homes.
For the time being, Xi has persisted in his silence, as he frequently does in tumultuous situations like the early days of the Wuhan breakout and the agonizing weeks of the Shanghai lockdown.
The Council of Foreign Relations analyst Huang claimed that Xi appeared to be momentarily separating himself from the zero-Covid U-turn.
Xi took a flight to Saudi Arabia on December 7, the day the government announced a major retreat from his zero-Covid strategy, for a state visit and regional summits.
"Perhaps he wants to avoid pointing the finger. In if the abrupt reopening results in mass fatalities, he doesn't want to become too involved, Huang said.