Xi’s tough covid policies spark rumblings of discontent in China

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In a surreal scene on the steps of a lockdown apartment complex in Shanghai, a resident dressed in a bright red rain jacket, face mask and visor lectured a team of Chinese officials dressed of hazardous materials on the limits of state power.

With vocal support from his neighbours, he expressed his frustration with quarantine measures locking people in their homes, arguing that state authority is bound by what the law allows. “I want to ask you, what clause of what law of our country gives you this power?” he said, according to video of the incident widely shared online.

The impromptu legal conference comes amid a fresh wave of resentment over the state’s overreach in Shanghai, where, in a bid to end China’s worst coronavirus outbreak since 2020, the city government further tightened restrictions in some districts this week. In some areas, residential buildings and shops have been condemned. Authorities have confiscated house keys to prevent isolation escapes, while the empty homes of people in central quarantine have been turned upside down as they are sprayed with disinfectant.

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The growing disruption to daily life caused by China’s “zero covid” policy, promoted at the highest level, risks alienating a population that has come to rely on what some scholars describe as the implicit contract of the Communist Party with the public: the leadership supports the economy, allows people to get rich and stay out of daily business in exchange for political quietude.

“The tacit understanding between us has been broken,” said a Shanghai-based Chinese journalist who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals. “Originally you let me live a happy life, I wouldn’t do anything against your interests, but that kind of trust doesn’t exist anymore. I think this might be the biggest problem [caused by lockdown].”

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While policymakers seem genuinely concerned about a possible “tsunami” of coronavirus infections and deaths spreading out of control, the choice to stick with current policy was also made because President Xi Jinping believes that China’s achievement of zero cases demonstrates the superiority of its governance over Western democracies. , especially in the United States, according to Lynette Ong, professor of China politics at the University of Toronto.

“He pushed himself into a corner, where it’s hard to go back,” she said.

The politicized nature of the zero covid policy raises fears about Xi’s style of personal government, which increasingly relies on mass mobilizations where everyone is expected to follow orders. This reassertion of the party in the lives of ordinary citizens draws comparisons to dark times in China’s past and raises fears that there is no longer room in society to live a quiet life without being interrupted by ideologically motivated campaigns. .

Shanghai’s escalating lockdown was prompted by a meeting last week of the Communist Party’s powerful Politburo Standing Committee, where Xi doubled down on his policy of total intolerance of coronavirus infections among the general population. The meeting concluded that anyone who doubts or denies the approach must be “struggled”.

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Soon after, Shanghai began to reverse what had been a gradual, if uneven, relaxation. Li Qiang, the local party secretary, described the new measures as ‘military orders’, citing a practice in which army officers pledge either to succeed or accept martial punishment if they fail. .

“It certainly has connotations of the ‘great leap forward’ to the 1950s where politics were in the driver’s seat,” said Carl Minzner, senior fellow for China studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, referring to Mao’s disastrous campaign. Zedong to catch up with industrialized countries. the nations steel and grain production that ended in mass starvation.

One of the defining tragedies of Mao’s reign was biased policy, due in part to fearful low-level officials reporting a rosier picture than reality to their superiors. Famine following the big leap was exacerbated by localities covering their grain shortages. Critics say Xi, too, could make such misjudgments as dissenting voices are drowned out and local officials tell superiors what they want to hear.

In the post-Mao reform period that began in 1978, party leaders began to leave day-to-day control to experts, which allowed for more openness and discussion. But since Xi took over, the party has reasserted itself.

“It has a dampening effect on the discussion within the party state,” Minzner said. “People start repeating what they think the leader wants to hear. And lo and behold, policy-making becomes very fragile and very extreme.

Speculation has swirled about the political ramifications of public anger over the lockdowns ahead of a leadership reshuffle in the fall, when many of the party’s top officials are expected to be replaced.

Some analysts say the backlash in Shanghai will make it harder for Li, the 62-year-old party leader seen as an ally of Xi, to secure a top position on the Politburo Standing Committee.

Besides tracking any promotions or demotions, however, most expect Xi’s direct control over decision-making to be increased in Congress. This could take the form of a new title such as ‘party chairman’ or ‘people’s leader’. Xi’s personal political ideology may also have high status, so it is on par with that of party founder Mao.

Locked down, Shanghai residents bypass censorship to let off steam online

Yet acts of violence by police and low-level officials enforcing restrictions in Shanghai have drawn online comparisons to the chaos and trauma of the final years of the Mao era. In a video posted to the Weibo microblog on Monday, a landlord walks around his apartment noting everything that went missing during sanitization, including food from the fridge, sheets, curtains and clothes.

The top-rated comment under the video read “Ah, I’ve seen this in the history books, its search and its confiscation”, a reference to a common practice during the Cultural Revolution in the late 1960s, when Radical “Red Guards” were raiding. houses in search of prohibited items.

While Xi’s style of rule remains distinct from Mao’s preference for chaotic mass movements, researchers say both leaders share a preference for political campaigns aimed at mobilizing the whole of society.

A sign of the locals’ fed up, middle-class Shanghainese like the man in the red raincoat are now calling on the rule of law to repel the excesses of the state.

He may have been inspired by Chinese jurist Luo Xiang, who, in a lecture that has gone viral, explained how state power should only extend as far as the law codifies it. Video after video, residents began to echo Luo’s demand for legal justification for the harsh measures.

But China’s top leaders are less interested in the law than in getting the results they want – even if it means breaking that law – the Shanghai-based reporter warned: “Chinese policy is about results. The law is a matter of procedure, but they don’t care about procedure. They just want results.

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