From Zero Covid to No Plan: Behind China’s Pandemic U-Turn

The southwestern city of Chongqing was the latest frontline of Xi Jinping’s “zero Covid” war, until it came to epitomize China’s potentially devastating about-face that has cracked the Communist Party’s edifice of absolute control.

The city last month was enduring one of the biggest outbreaks cropping up across China, when the national leader, Mr. Xi, ordered officials to continue mass testing, lockdowns and quarantines. Chen Min’er, the Chongqing party secretary, devoutly complied, closing off neighborhoods and ordering the instant construction of a quarantine hospital designed to hold up to 21,000 beds.

“Be resolute in fighting and winning this war of annihilation against the pandemic,” Mr. Chen, a protégé of Mr. Xi, told officials on Nov. 27. “Not a day of delay.”

But 10 days later, China suddenly abandoned the “zero Covid” strategy on which Mr. Xi had staked his reputation. Now the country faces a surge of infections, and Mr. Xi has left officials scrambling to manage the disarray and uncertainty.

China’s party-run media has cast the shift as a stressful but well-considered exit, opening the way back to good economic times. Warnings about the dangers of the coronavirus have swiftly disappeared, replaced by official claims that the Omicron variant is generally mild. By holding off from easing until now, the government has saved many lives, the People’s Daily said on Thursday in a long article defending Mr. Xi’s pandemic strategy as “totally correct.”

A makeshift hospital under construction last month in Chongqing, in China’s southwest. Its intended use: to quarantine coronavirus patients. But the sudden easing of rules means that people with mild Covid cases can now stay home.Credit…CNS, via Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

In reality, an examination of how the shift unfolded in Chongqing and elsewhere reveals a government overtaken by a cascade of Covid outbreaks, confusion over directives, economic woes and then rare political protests.

Mr. Xi had contrasted his prior pandemic success with the “chaos of the West,” brandishing it as proof of his grand narrative of a rising China: orderly, secure, farsighted. But he had no plan for measured retreat from “zero Covid,” leaving a bewildered populace to improvise after three years of being micromanaged.

The government is racing to approve vaccines and to obtain Western medicines after shunning them. Officials, long focused on eliminating cases, are struggling to marshal resources to treat an explosion of infections. Even the Chinese Communist Party, a virtuoso at controlling the narrative, is finding it difficult to sell the policy lurch to anxious residents.

This weekend, the streets of Chinese cities remained quiet, except for throngs of people at hospitals for Covid tests or treatment, an eerie reprise of Wuhan three years ago, when that city was the first gripped by the virus.

“It’s overall been quite chaotic, and of course part of that is the number coming down positive — about one-third of people, to judge from my friends,” said Tan Gangqiang, a psychological counselor in Chongqing who has helped residents with the stresses of lockdowns, and now, of sudden opening.

Customers looking for over-the-counter medication at a pharmacy in Shanghai on Wednesday. Many of the cold and flu medicines have sold out.Credit…Qilai Shen for The New York Times

“There are many people who have been living under the official propaganda for a long time, so after being released they feel at a loss about what to do,” he said. “There are even some who hope that the government will restore controls.”

Mr. Xi’s own formula for beating back Covid may have inadvertently set China up for this jolting and potentially devastating turn.

Understand the Situation in China

The Communist Party cast aside restrictive “zero Covid” policy, which  set off mass protests that were a rare challenge to the Communist leadership.

  • Traumatized and Deflated: Gripped with grief and anxiety, many in China want a national reckoning over the hard-line Covid policy. Holding the government accountable may be a quixotic quest.
  • A Cloudy Picture: Despite Beijing’s assurances that the situation is under control, data on infections has become more opaque amid loosened pandemic constraints.
  • In Beijing: As Covid sweeps across the Chinese capital, Beijing looks like a city in the throes of a lockdown — this time, self-imposed by residents.
  • Importance of Vaccines: As the government drops its restrictions, it not only needs to convince people that the virus is nothing to fear, but also that inoculations are essential.

He turned China’s intense top-to-bottom mobilization against the pandemic into a showcase of the party’s organizational strength. For two years, his Covid war enjoyed widespread public acceptance, but eventually the effort exhausted staff, strained local finances, and appeared to drown out attempts to discuss, let alone devise, a measured transition.

Mr. Xi has no likely successor and could stay in power for at least another decade. But the scars from the abrupt change may feed distrust in his domineering style.

“The whipsaw speed of this shift is partially the extent to which this is the decision of one man. But also it’s officials trying to please that one man, and trying to run where you think he’s headed — sprint, in fact,” said Jeremy L. Wallace, an associate professor at Cornell University, whose book,

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