Roots Of China’s Zero-COVID Policy – Analysis


Xi Jinping’s Zero-COVID policy has ideological, political and nationalistic roots. There are also historical antecedents to the unusually strong and concerted State action to achieve the leader’s goal.   

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s stand at the recently concluded 20th Communist Party conference belied hopes that his tough Zero-COVID policy would end with his obtaining an unprecedented third term as party General Secretary.

Prior to the Congress that was held in mid-October, Western commentators and Chinese liberals were hoping that if the party fully endorsed Xi’s policies and style, he would be free to revise his rigid COVID-19 policy that had taken a heavy toll economically besides abridging the people’s freedoms drastically.  

But this did not happen because Xi came out of the party Congress convinced that his policy was correct and no correction was needed. He has been of the view that the only way to end the scourge of COVID is to prevent it from spreading among China’s millions by imposing severe, large-scale lockdowns, crippling restrictions on movement, and strictly controlling inter-personal interactions. 

Xi told the party Congress on October 16: “In responding to the sudden outbreak of COVID-19, we put the people and their lives above all else, worked to prevent both imported cases and domestic resurgences, and tenaciously pursued a dynamic Zero-COVID policy. In launching an all-out people’s war to stop the spread of the virus, we have protected the people’s health and safety to the greatest extent possible and made tremendously encouraging achievements in both epidemic response and economic and social development.” 

‘Xi’s justification for the draconian restrictions was that these had saved millions of lives. But the flipside comprised many painful curbs on the people and an economic downturn which had a global impact through supply chain disruptions. 

“At least 65 million Chinese are currently under some form of lockdown. In cities that are not battling outbreaks, quashing COVID still dictates the rhythms of daily life. Residents line up for mandatory, regular testing and obsessively monitor their health codes, digital markers that dictate whether they can move freely,” the New York Times reported.

Writing in The Diplomat Sarah Hsu said that China’s GDP declined by 2.6% in the second quarter of 2022, the slowest since the pandemic began in 2020. She quoted a Hong Kong-based economist who estimated that lockdowns were costing China 3.1% of GDP per month, assuming the highest GDP contributing cities were under quarantine. 

Hao Hong, the chief economist and a partner at Grow Investment Management in Hong Kong, was quoted in the media as saying that “the nearly three dozen Chinese cities under some form of lockdown represent one-third of China’s entire economic output.” Sarah Hsu quoted another survey to say that 60% of foreign companies were either slashing operations or trying to locate outside China. According to New York Timesyouth unemployment had reached a record 20% in August 2022.

But the economic squeeze, the fall in incomes and a rise in employment have not deterred Xi Jinping from pursuing his Zero-COVID policy. He has relegated economic development to the background giving top priority to containing COVID-19, firmly convinced that it will be in the long-term interest of China. 

That could well be, but various other reasons are also cited for Xi’s stubbornness in this regard. The Voice of America speculated that China would not give up the “non-medical route” to COVID containment till it had indigenously developed an effective vaccine to match the efficacy of the Western Pfizer-BioNtech and Moderna vaccines. 

It is a matter of Chinese national pride to use only Chinese makes. And China appears ready to wait until an effective Chinese vaccine is found. This indicates the overwhelming power of Chinese nationalism and the Chinese sense of independence.   

The second reason cited for Xi’s stubbornness is that China does not believe in containing the virus by allowing the population to develop herd immunity. Many in China fear that in a populous country like China, hundreds of thousands, if not millions, might be infected or might have to be sacrificed, to develop herd immunity. 

The other problem is that vaccination has not been universal in China. Strangely enough, even under an authoritarian regime, 38% of the population above 60 years have not been fully vaccinated, according to Sarah Hsu. Other observers said that many Chinese, especially the aged, did not believe in getting vaccinated given the fear of adverse consequences. The government, as well as a good section of the masses, believed that limiting social interactions and imposing lockdowns would be a safer route to take than vaccinating the unwilling. 

VOA backs this up by quoting Jean-Pierre Cabestan of the French Centre for Research on Contemporary China in Hong Kong, who said that despite some opposition within the party, there was “strong support overall” for the Zero COVID policy along with the curbs, even among  doctors and experts in China. 

Xi is also encouraged by the fact that the severe lockdowns that he had imposed during the first wave of COVID two years ago had controlled the spread of the virus even as other countries, including the US and other Western nations, were experiencing a high death toll. China not only prevented a high death rate but recovered economically to inch closer to the US. The Communist party took pride in this, and the effectiveness of the severe measures were touted as vindication of the superiority of the Chinese system of governance.   

Propaganda also played a role in the acceptance of the tough policy, reports said. It depicted COVID-19 as a killer which devastated Western countries, thus heightening the stigma about the virus among ordinary Chinese.  The stigma also helped silence those seeking a milder and more humane approach to the COVID threat.

Historically, China has taken extreme measures to achieve social, political and economic goals and also to tackle national problems. The Great Leap Forward from 1958 to 1961, with Chairman Mao Zedong at the helm, was an ambitious plan for drastic economic development, urbanization, and industrialization. But it involved the forcible collectivization of farming and other measures which ruined the economy. The havoc included 45 million deaths due to famine, according to Western estimates. 

The Cultural Revolution of 1966 was the next event to be marked by  excesses. Mao blamed some top party bigwigs and many others for the failure of the Great Leap Forward. He launched the “Cultural Revolution” to ruthlessly weed out those who allegedly stood in the way of the revolution. He unleashed the thuggish Red Guards on the suspects. Chinese social institutions were turned upside down by unruly mobs. Mao launched a purge also because he felt there was a top-level conspiracy to unseat him.   

A Western report cited a 2011 paper by Song Yongyi, a scholar of the Cultural Revolution, to put the death toll in the Cultural Revolution as having been anywhere between 500,000 and eight million. Many leading figures of the revolution like Deng Xioping and Liu Shaoqi were sidelined and humiliated. 

Xi Jinping’s Zero COVID policy is a severe policy and is being executed in China’s authoritarian tradition. But in contrast to the previous national movements, it is totally non-violent. The aim is to save lives. “Launching an all-out people’s war to stop the spread of the virus, we have protected the people’s health and safety to the greatest extent possible,” Xi told the party Congress.

P. K. Balachandran

P. K. Balachandran is a senior Indian journalist working in Sri Lanka for local and international media and has been writing on South Asian issues for the past 21 years.

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