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Chinese zero-Covid policy: how did it all go so wrong for Xi Jinping?

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Editor’s note: A version of this story appeared in CNN’s news bulletin Meanwhile in China, a tri-weekly update exploring what you need to know about the country’s rise and its impact on the world. Register here.


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2022 was meant to be a triumphant year for China and its leader Xi Jinping, as he entered his second decade in power with the promise of restoring the nation to greatness.

Instead, China had its toughest year under Xi as it reeled from its costly zero Covid policy – ​​months of overzealous enforcement that crushed the economy and stoked historic public discontent, to such an abrupt total abandonment that has left a fragile healthcare system scrambling to deal with an explosion of cases.

The chaos and disarray contrast sharply with the start of the year, when Beijing showcased the success of its Covid containment measures in keeping the coronavirus largely away from the Winter Olympics.

In the space of a year, Xi’s signature pandemic politics have gone from a source of legitimacy for the ruling Communist Party to a spiraling crisis that threatens to undermine it.

As an unprecedented wave of infections – and deaths – sweeps the country, many have wondered why after sacrificing so much below zero-Covid and waiting so long to reopen, the government finally let the virus spread through a population with little prior warning or preparation.

As 2022 draws to a close, CNN looks back on five key events of the year for China’s zero Covid policy.

The Games proved a resounding success for China’s zero Covid strategy.

In its tightly sealed and meticulously managed Olympic bubble, the ubiquitous face masks, endless spraying of disinfectant and rigorous daily testing have paid off. All infected visitors arriving in the country were quickly identified and their cases contained, allowing the Winter Olympics to go ahead largely Covid-free even as the Omicron variant raged around the world.

The success added to the party’s narrative that its political system is superior to those of Western democracies in handling the pandemic – a message Xi had repeated repeatedly as he prepared for a third term in office.

It also bolstered China’s confidence that its well-rehearsed playbook of lockdowns, quarantines, mass testing and contact tracing could provide an effective defense against the highly transmissible Omicron and contain its spread. Looking ahead to the Games, those measures worked in January to tame the country’s first outbreak of Omicron in Tianjin, a port city near Beijing.

But it didn’t take long for Omicron to seep through the zero-Covid mesh. By mid-March, China was battling its worst Covid outbreak since the first wave of the pandemic, reporting thousands of new cases a day from northern Jilin province to southern Guangdong.

Shanghai’s financial center quickly became the epicenter. Local officials initially denied a citywide lockdown was needed, but later imposed one after the city reported 3,500 daily infections.

The two-month confinement has become a crying symbol of the economic and social costs of zero-Covid. In the country’s wealthiest and most glamorous city, residents were subjected to widespread food shortages, lack of emergency medical care, spartan makeshift isolation facilities and forced disinfection of their homes. The draconian measures have sparked wave after wave of outcry, severely eroding public trust in the Shanghai government.

The lockdown has also wreaked havoc on the economy. China’s GDP shrank 2.6% in the three months to June, while youth employment hit a record high of nearly 20%.

But the costly lockdown has not caused China to abandon its zero-tolerance approach. On the contrary, officials hailed it as a victory in the war against Covid. Other local governments have come away with the lesson that they must curb infections at all costs, before outbreaks spiral out of control.

Covid workers disinfect a residential community under lockdown in Shanghai in April.

With the approach of the very important national congress of the party, the pressure has only increased.

Having tied himself so closely to zero-Covid, Xi found himself stuck in a trap of his own making. He could not afford to walk away from it, with the potential spike in infections and deaths posing too great a risk to his authority before he secured his earth-shattering third term in Congress.

So instead of vaccinating the elderly and building intensive care capacity, authorities wasted the following crucial months building larger quarantine facilities, rolling out more frequent mass testing and imposing broader lockdowns. which at one point affected more than 300 million people.

But even the strictest measures failed to control the spread of Omicron. In October, China was again reporting thousands of daily infections. Amid growing public frustration, the People’s Daily, the party’s main mouthpiece, insisted that zero-Covid is “sustainable” and the country’s “best choice”.

Opening the congress, Xi gave broad support for his Covid policy, saying it had “prioritized people and their lives above all else”. He won a big political victory, securing a third term and stacking the party’s highest ranks with loyal allies – including those who had loyally enforced his Covid policies.

Officials took the hint and became increasingly zealous in enforcing zero-Covid, dashing hopes that the country could open up after the congress.

Chinese leader Xi Jinping emerges from the 20th Party Congress with more power than ever.

As restrictions tightened, more suffering and tragedy emerged from the ongoing lockdowns.

Migrant workers have abandoned a locked Foxconn factory en masse, walking for miles to escape an outbreak at China’s biggest iPhone assembly site. A 3-year-old boy died of gas poisoning in custody after being prevented from being rushed to hospital. A 4-month-old girl died in hotel quarantine after a 12-hour delay in medical treatment.

Then, in late November, a deadly apartment fire in the western city of Urumqi finally sparked public anger that had been simmering for months. Many believed the lockdown measures had hampered rescue efforts, despite official denials.

Protests have erupted across the country, on a scale not seen in decades. On college campuses and on the streets of major cities, crowds gathered to demand an end to relentless Covid testing and lockdowns, with some decrying censorship and demanding greater political freedoms.

In Shanghai, protesters even demanded Xi’s resignation – an unimaginable act of political defiance of the country’s most powerful and authoritarian leader in decades.

The nationwide protests have posed an unprecedented challenge to Xi. By then, Omicron had seemingly spiraled out of control, with the country recording a daily record of more than 40,000 infections, and the economic strain becoming too severe, with local governments running out of money to pay huge lockdown bills.

Protesters march through the streets of Beijing to call for an end to zero-Covid on November 28.

In an apparent effort to appease protesters, some cities have begun easing restrictions.

Then, on December 7, the central government announced a radical overhaul of the approach, rolling back lockdowns, testing and allowing residents to self-isolate at home – abandoning zero-Covid in the process.

State media and health officials have since shifted from preaching the dangers of the virus to downplaying its threat.

While the easing of stifling restrictions is a long-awaited relief for many, its bluntness and randomness caught unprepared audiences off guard and left them to fend for themselves.

Over-the-counter cold and fever medicines – the purchase of which had been restricted under zero-Covid – sold out instantly in pharmacies and on online shopping sites. Huge queues have formed outside fever clinics and hospital emergency rooms are overflowing with patients, many of them elderly. Crematoria are struggling to cope with an influx of bodies.

Covid patients lie in the lobby of a hospital in the megacity of Chongqing as space in wards runs out.

Amid the chaos, the government stopped reporting the bulk of the country’s Covid infections and tightened its criteria for counting Covid deaths in a way that the World Health Organization says “would underestimate largely the true death toll.”

While this decision factored into public panic, the political nuances are also hard to miss.

For nearly three years, the low number of Covid cases and the number of deaths in China compared to countries like the United States have been held up as a measure of the party’s merit and legitimacy.

Now, the true scale of the outbreak and deaths could be a serious blow to the credibility of a government that had justified years of painful restrictions on the grounds that they were necessary to save lives.

Some studies have estimated that China’s abrupt and underprepared reopening could lead to nearly a million deaths – close to the US Covid death toll.

As China enters its third – and darkest – pandemic winter, zero-Covid is finally dead, but the fallout from its demise will haunt the country for next year.

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