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The Political Implications of China’s Zero-Covid Strategy

Image via Qilai Shen/New York Times

Until very recently, China was the only country in the world still holding fast to a zero-Covid strategy, an approach that focuses on clearing local Covid-19 transmissions with all available political tools. Whenever a city experienced a spike in cases, the government subjected residents to lockdowns, mass testing, and centralized quarantine to bring cases back down again. While this strategy proved effective for much of 2021, it has become increasingly hard to sustain given the changing nature of the virus. In early September, the government placed 313 million Chinese citizens under full or partial lockdown, bringing much of the country into an economic standstill. The widespread lockdowns also came at a tragic social cost. Since the start of the lockdowns, reports about people being trapped without food, denied medical access, or abused by quarantine workers have made rounds on the Chinese internet. More recently, reports broke out that 10 people died in an apartment fire in Urumqi due to the hampering of rescue efforts by lockdown barriers, leading people across China to engage in street protests to express their frustrations with the zero-Covid regime.

But these are not the only consequences of the zero-Covid strategy. Aside from the immediate costs associated with lockdowns, the zero-Covid era could also leave a lasting impact on China’s political trajectory. For much of the past decade, China was caught between two competing visions for its political future: a narrative of peaceful development promoted by moderates and another narrative, supported by hardliners, that emphasizes the need to assert state power both domestically and abroad. Even though commentators tend to view President Xi Jinping as a proponent of the latter, his government has maintained a certain balance between both types of rhetoric up until this point; however, three years of zero-Covid lockdowns could facilitate China’s turn towards greater nationalism by altering the economic and institutional realities shaping the government’s choices.

On the economic front, the zero-Covid lockdowns will create ripple effects on China’s growth prospects. China’s GDP grew at a rate of only 2.5 percent in the first half of 2022 and is projected to grow at below 5 percent through 2024. Even though these growth figures are still sizable, they represent a new reality for a country that was growing at an average rate of 9 percent for decades. 

A look at detailed statistics reveals an even more concerning picture. In the first quarter of 2022, more than 460,000 Chinese firms closed down permanently as businesses reeled from Covid-19 restrictions, and the rate of new firm registrations sharply declined. The effect of this business slump is an increasingly precarious job market. Youth unemployment reached a record high of 19.9 percent, and more than 80 percent of recent college graduates have not secured an employment contract. Despite coming of age in an era of spectacular growth, this generation of Chinese youth is now forced to contend with economic insecurity and thwarted aspirations.

This is problematic for the Chinese government because economic performance is a major source of the party’s legitimacy. In the face of increasing economic discontent, the party leaders will have to find other means to secure the support of the elites and the public. This increases the likelihood of diversionary conflict—the use of international tensions to mobilize nationalist sentiments and divert attention from domestic problems. There is evidence that states are more likely to initiate military conflicts when they experience economic downturns. In the case of China specifically, a study has found that China is twice as likely to initiate a dispute with the United States following a stock market shock, providing evidence that the state perceives nationalism as a powerful diversionary tool. 

From the perspective of the government, the escalation of tensions with the United States over Taiwan or other contentious territories could be a powerful way to mobilize the public, since collective memories of China’s territorial erosion at the hands of colonial powers has made the issue of national sovereignty highly salient among the public. In a tense political atmosphere, it will also be easier for the government to discredit domestic opposition as being influenced by subversive foreign forces. Therefore, even though China still has strong incentives to avoid an all-out war, the increase in domestic tensions might make the government more willing to engage in brinkmanship tactics for political mobilization purposes.

Moreover, the zero-Covid approach has weakened the economic and political constraints inhibiting leaders from adopting hardline nationalist policies. First of all, China’s self-imposed isolation has reduced the economic linkages between China and the West. The stringency of the zero-Covid measures has convinced many foreign investors that China’s policy environment is becoming too unstable for businesses. As a result, a growing number of Western firms are making plans to diversify their supply chains and reshore production to other Asian economies. In the meantime, the exchange of people between China and other countries also experienced a sharp decline, with the number of foreigners living in China falling by half over the past two years. 

This reduction in economic linkages has significant geopolitical implications. Over the past few decades, China’s economic connections to the rest of the world have paved the way for a delicate peace by raising the costs of war. Since its economic opening, China received billions of dollars per year in foreign direct investment, increasing the risk that an international conflict could undermine China’s growth trajectory. Even with the increase in Sino-US tensions in recent years, Chinese officials have repeatedly cited the countries’ mutual economic reliance as grounds for political caution; however, as China becomes more decoupled from the global economy, neither the threat of domestic business opposition nor the threat of international sanctions will be as great as in the past. The result is that it will become less costly for the government to engage in confrontations with the West or its regional competitors.

Finally, the zero-Covid policies also accelerated Xi’s consolidation of power over the party, making it easier for leadership to push through hardline foreign policies. Even though Xi had been accumulating power well before the pandemic, he was able to leverage the pandemic response to demonstrate the costs of political disobedience. Across China, local officials were asked to prioritize the zero-Covid policy to the exclusion of all other objectives, and those who failed to keep down the case count were promptly dismissed. On the other hand, officials who enforced the zero-Covid strategy with extreme resolve gained powerful positions even if their policies generated great public discontent. Through these appointments and dismissals, Xi is sending a clear message to party officials about the importance of loyalty. Under this tightened political environment, it will be difficult for officials to express policy criticisms due to the prospect of political reprisal. As a result, if the leadership does decide to pursue highly confrontational foreign policies, there is a much lower chance that there will be internal opposition strong enough to impede its efforts.

In more ways than one, the zero-Covid policies have altered China’s political landscape and created conditions for a turn toward nationalist policies. Nevertheless, China’s political trajectory is far from being determined. Even in the current era, some party officials have pushed back against personalist rule and advocated for greater checks and balances within the government. In the meantime, the recent protests also provide some indications that more Chinese citizens are becoming wary of top-down political mobilization and are in favor of more liberalization, which could potentially make the government reassess the extent to which the public remains receptive to hardline nationalist policies. Given the challenges that lay ahead, it will be important for reform-minded elites and intellectuals in China to continue to act as voices of moderation in the political discourse and defend the value of a balanced foreign policy to China’s continued development.