Xi Jinping’s Covid Crisis Is Really an Opportunity

The public discontent vented in bold demonstrations last month against China’s Covid containment policies represents the greatest domestic crisis President Xi Jinping has faced in his decade in power. His government quickly smothered the protests. It would be tempting to view things now as a slow-burn stalemate between a restless population and an unyielding authoritarian government. But the Communist Party’s relationship with the Chinese people is more complex than that.

As abruptly as it cracked down on the demonstrators, Mr. Xi’s government essentially yielded to their main demand, pivoting away from its unpopular “zero-Covid” strategy in a striking display of responsiveness. More work is required to put this episode behind him, but Mr. Xi now has an opportunity to rewrite the social contract that governs China — the implicit bargain under which the people acquiesce to autocracy in exchange for stability and prosperity.

He could learn from Deng Xiaoping, a master of maximizing the political potential of crisis. When Mr. Deng returned to power in the late 1970s after the death of Mao Zedong, the Communist Party faced an existential crisis: Mao’s despotic rule had impoverished China and devastated the party. Mr. Deng seized the moment, abandoned Mao’s fantasies of a Communist nirvana in favor of political stability and improving standards of living. The party’s compact with the people was redrawn.

By the early 1990s, China’s ruling elites were once again demoralized and directionless. The crackdown on the 1989 pro-democracy demonstrations in Beijing had soiled the party’s image, and in December 1991 the Soviet Union crumbled. Mr. Deng again turned crisis into opportunity. Just months after the Soviet collapse, the 87-year-old leader rallied the party and breathed new life into market reforms. The decades of economic success that followed reaffirmed the party’s “mandate of heaven” — the imperial-era concept of a divine right to rule.

Mr. Deng had the advantage of exploiting crises blamed on others (Mao and the Soviets). It won’t be as easy for Mr. Xi to disassociate himself from a Covid policy in which he invested significant political capital but which has stifled the economy and provoked the rare street demonstrations. But he does have an advantage of his own: During the Communist Party congress in October, Mr. Xi secured a third term and stacked the party’s upper echelons with his supporters. Acknowledging a major policy error will not endanger his political survival.

Mr. Xi has a strategic window to not only pivot away from zero-Covid, but also from a personal governing style that has once again imperiled the party’s deal with the people. Before Mr. Xi, that longstanding compact had obliged the party to be meritocratic and administratively competent. Officials were promoted based on the economic performance of their cities and provinces, and channels — although limited — still existed through which citizens could voice complaints. Lawyers, journalists and activists enjoyed far more freedom to challenge local authorities who governed poorly or abused power than they do now.

Mr. Xi departed from all this. He inherited the reins a decade ago with the economy booming but the ruling party tarnished by corruption and environmental devastation. He cracked down on those problems and prioritized ideological loyalty over economic development and administrative competence. Political indoctrination reminiscent of the Mao era returned, and the government has become less friendly to the private sector. Fearful of a “color revolution,” Mr. Xi has imposed the harshest social controls and censorship since Mao.

The protests in several cities in late November were, on the surface, directed at harsh and arbitrary tactics like lockdowns and incessant Covid testing. But other serious public concerns had been building for years: a slowing economy, soaring youth unemployment, a property-sector crisis, tightening social controls and Mr. Xi’s revival of discredited Communist ideology. A lone protester voiced this disaffection in October, putting up anti-Xi banners in Beijing on the eve of the party congress with slogans like “We don’t want a Cultural Revolution! We want reform!” — phrases uttered the next month in the street demonstrations.

Mr. Xi would be unwise to stick to his current ideological course of a state-dominated economy and absolute regime security. If he does, the Chinese economy will almost certainly underperform. Officials obsessed with demonstrating loyalty to him may double down on ill-conceived policies that ignore public opinion, the very thing that triggered the demonstrations. Mr. Xi’s assertive foreign policy will further alienate the West, and continued paranoia about “hostile forces” seeking to undermine China will bring further repression upon an already weary public.

Instead, Mr. Xi should channel Mr. Deng. A good start would be to refocus on economic development, and perhaps meet with leading entrepreneurs, some of whom have been detained, sidelined or have kept a low profile in recent years as Mr. Xi suppressed the private sector. Rescinding crippling tech regulations imposed in the last two years would also send a positive signal. Mr. Xi, in fact, presented an ambitious blueprint for deepening economic reform during his first year in power that called for market forces, rather than the state, to lead development. As his rhetoric and policies veered to the left over the years, very little of that reform agenda was implemented, but it is never too late, and it is needed now.

The recent demonstrations also made clear that government must be more responsive. Restoring those limited channels that had allowed the public to question policy — which Mr. Xi has all but shut down — will help the party deliver competent governance. The aspirations of China’s growing middle class may constitute a long-term threat to one-party rule, but they prefer evolution, not revolution. But government incompetence and indifference, as epitomized by zero-Covid, could radicalize them.

A return to Mr. Deng’s pragmatism will not be credible unless Mr. Xi listens to other voices in the party. Before he took power, the Communist Party observed a system of collective decision-making intended to balance the interests of its leading factions. This frequently led to paralysis. But it also helped the party avoid the kinds of major policy missteps — like zero-Covid — that come with one-man rule. Now fully in charge, Mr. Xi may find surrendering a little power unattractive. But he can still allow more consultation in decision-making.

We don’t know whether Mr. Xi thinks he needs to change course. But if he read the recent protests correctly, he must realize that a renewed compact with the Chinese people may be essential to preserving his own “mandate of heaven.”

Minxin Pei is professor of government at Claremont McKenna College. He is the author of the forthcoming book, “Guarding Dictatorship: China’s Surveillance State.” His research focuses on state surveillance and corruption in China.

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