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How “zero-Covid” changed China — and the world

A wave of protests by Chinese citizens is a reminder that the desire for a normal life can be as hard to suppress as a virus.

Protesters hold up pieces of paper against censorship and China’s strict “zero-Covid” measures on November 27, 2022 in Beijing, China.
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Kelsey Piper is a senior writer at Future Perfect, Vox’s effective altruism-inspired section on the world’s biggest challenges. She explores wide-ranging topics like climate change, artificial intelligence, vaccine development, and factory farms, and also writes the Future Perfect newsletter.

Some 1.4 billion people live in China. That means that if one looks at the world from a humanitarian standpoint, what life is like for Chinese people in China is one of the most important questions to explore — if one that rarely gets covered in US media except through the prism of Washington’s geopolitical rivalry with Beijing.

Over the past week, large protests have sprung up across China, as people rise up against an authoritarian government that has been imposing harsh and highly restrictive measures to prevent the spread of Covid-19. The protests were most immediately kicked off by an apartment fire in Urumqi, Xinjiang, that reportedly killed 10 people, a disaster that was widely believed to be made worse because strict Covid lockdowns inhibited emergency response. Like a September incident when a bus taking people to a Covid-19 quarantine camp crashed, killing 27 people, the fire drove home to many in China that their lives were being endangered by their government’s totalitarian Covid policy.

The protests, which China is now suppressing with heavy police presence, may not succeed in changing Xi Jinping’s zero-Covid strategy. But I believe they do mark something notable: the degree to which zero-Covid could be a turning point for China, with crucial implications for nearly 20 percent of the planet’s population.

Xi’s Covid policy is consuming his country

Most countries that successfully suppressed Covid-19 early in the pandemic began relaxing their strict policies after highly effective mRNA vaccines became widely available, while even the most stringent countries began to change their policies once omicron struck. A more contagious but less deadly variant — plus the availability of vaccines and treatments that significantly reduced the chance of death but less so of infection — meant that maintaining strict lockdowns no longer made sense in a cost-benefit analysis.

China, however, has largely refused to budge from its policy of aggressive lockdowns, sometimes even of whole cities. This has largely contained outbreaks of Covid — since the start of the pandemic, China has reported around 1.5 million Covid cases, compared to almost 100 million in the US. But the policy has come at extraordinary cost. China’s youth unemployment rate is now nearly 20 percent. Its rapid economic growth has nearly ground to a standstill — no small thing in a country that, while the world’s second-largest economy, is still fairly poor on a per capita basis. Hundreds of millions of people have endured misery, uncertainty, fear, and deprivation.

One of the most remarkable figures I saw in coverage of this week’s protests is this one: “Covid testing now accounts for up to 1.3 per cent of China’s GDP and 7.2 per cent of public revenue.” Dedicating more than 1 percent of GDP to Covid testing is bleeding huge quantities of resources that could be used to make the country and its people more prosperous.

Looking at the big picture

All of this has implications, of course — for geopolitics, for predictions that China will supersede the US and spread its authoritarian values, and for far more.

But I want to pause on the human cost. China’s massive economic growth was, in humanitarian terms, one of the most important and positive developments of the late 20th century. China’s progress alone accounted for nearly three-fourths of the reduction in extreme poverty over the past 40 years, lifting hundreds of millions of people out of grinding destitution. That is, by any measure, a historic win for human development.

Yet, intertwined with that success story, the steadily calcifying authoritarianism of the Chinese Communist Party under Xi Jinping has been one of the biggest humanitarian tragedies of the 21st century. Chinese people lost what access they had to a relatively free internet in favor of one driven by aggressive censorship, and lost access to a relatively consumer-driven economy in favor of one that prioritized Xi’s whims. More than a billion people lost rights they should have been able to exercise. That was and remains an enormous tragedy on its own terms.

US writing about China sometimes seems to assume that because of its comprehensiveness and technological sophistication, the CCP has successfully convinced the people of China to accept authoritarianism. “Most assume that Chinese citizens’ views are largely shaped by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) propaganda machine,” a report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies this spring noted. “American policymakers assume that Xi Jinping and the CCP face no challenges from domestic public opinion except perhaps from hypernationalist groups.”

But what the report makes clear — and what the protests make impossible to ignore — is the falsity of those assumptions. The people of China, like people living under authoritarian rule everywhere, have their own worldviews and their own priorities. They may tolerate government misconduct in a time of rapid economic growth, but in an economic stallout, frustrations come to the fore.

Freedom finds a way

That’s why zero-Covid could mark a turning point for China, even though the CCP will likely suppress the current round of protests. As long as Beijing sticks to its doomed Covid policy, China’s rapid economic growth is likely over. And with China’s economic growth hobbled, the reasons many Chinese had to tolerate their government’s authoritarianism are over, too.

Those of us in the West should listen to what’s being said by the brave protesters who’ve come out to the streets in China. The protesters this week chanted “need human rights, need freedom” and “We don’t want lifelong rulers. We don’t want emperors!” A banner unfolded over Sitong Bridge in Beijing shortly before the party congress this October read:

We don’t want nucleic acid testing, we want food to eat;

We don’t want lockdowns, we want freedom;

We don’t want lies, we want dignity;

We don’t want Cultural Revolution, we want reform;

We don’t want [dictatorial] leaders, we want elections;

We don’t want to be slaves, we want to be citizens.

That’s the voice of a people who have their own political opinions and vision of freedom, not those who have been propagandized into complacency by the Chinese state.

It may be the authoritarian overreach of the zero-Covid policies that brought these sentiments to the fore, but it’s become clear that the vision of China as a well-run authoritarian state brilliantly managing public opinion and wisely charting a future course was always something of a mirage. Instead, what we see today is an out-of-touch dictator who has driven his country’s economic miracle into the ground, and who is now relying on his massive security forces to keep the public, which wants and deserves better, out of the streets.

There are already indications that the protests might cause Beijing to finally loosen its Covid restrictions, though doing so won’t be easy — lack of exposure to the virus and low rates of vaccination, especially among the most vulnerable elderly, mean the country could see massive outbreaks if it opens up all together. But the zero-Covid policies will ultimately fail because China met a virus that is simply too contagious to suppress with blunt tools, no matter how powerful, without paying a price the country cannot afford. And when it comes to political liberty, the CCP appears to have made precisely the same miscalculation: The desire for freedom, for human rights, for simply being able to live the life that you want, may be as irrepressible as omicron.

A version of this story was initially published in the Future Perfect newsletter. Sign up here to subscribe!

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