By Gwynne Dyer
Even the Pope claims to be infallible only on matters of faith and doctrine. On the chance of rain or the speed of a racehorse he will freely admit that he is just as fallible as you and I. Whereas secular dictators like China’s President Xi Jinping are implicitly claiming to be infallible about everything.
For more than two years now, Xi has loudly proclaimed that China’s zero-Covid policy has been a brilliant success that demonstrates the superiority of the Chinese system and of his own leadership. And for a while there, the evidence was on his side.
The Covid death toll in China is still under 6,000, while Covid fatalities in the United States are nearing the million mark. However, China achieved this miracle only by almost completely shutting its borders and imposing draconian shut-downs on entire cities at the first sign of an infection.
That succeeded for a while, just as it did in Australia and New Zealand, two geographically isolated countries that followed essentially the same policy. But as soon as the great majority of their populations were fully vaccinated those governments began to release the restrictions.
Happily, by then the Omicron variant was taking over, making Covid more infectious but far less lethal. Alas, Xi Jinping missed that memo and pressed on with the zero-Covid policy, at great cost to the Chinese economy and in the face of growing resentment among ordinary people.
At the moment, 340 million people, around one-quarter of China’s population, are under full or partial lockdown in 46 different cities. The 25 million residents of Shanghai are in their fifth week of lockdown.
Given the huge infection rate of Omicron – in both the United States and the United Kingdom around 70% of the population have had Covid at least once – this policy cannot logically have a long-term future.
The ceaseless lockdowns are hitting China so hard that second-quarter growth is forecast to be only 1.8%. This means not only unemployment and potential unrest, but Chinese customers elsewhere shifting away from dependence on supply chains originating in China. The shift could be permanent.
And yet Xi Jinping perseveres with the policy. His regime has not even speeded up vaccinations in China: nothing must be allowed to suggest that the zero-Covid policy is failing. Why?
Because an absolute dictator must appear infallible. Xi has boasted so much about his victory over Covid that no doubt can be admitted – especially at a time when he is planning to make his dictator-for-life status official.
This autumn marks the end of the two five-year terms that Xi would have been permitted under the Communist Party’s post-Mao rules, which were designed precisely to thwart other would-be absolute dictators.
His plan was to be elected to a rule-breaking third term at the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party next October or November, and even a year ago he looked like a shoo-in.
Xi has purged or jailed a great many senior officials on corruption charges, and those who were still in office seemed thoroughly cowed. Nevertheless, there are still a lot of senior Party people who think that one-man rule is always a mistake.
You’d still be unwise to bet against Xi’s chances of a third term (and as many more as his lifespan allows), but he himself is now running scared. Which probably means that there will be no change in the current, crazy Covid policy at least until the end of the year.