Editor’s Note: A version of this story appeared in CNN’s Meanwhile in China newsletter, a three-times-a-week update exploring what you need to know about the country’s rise and how it impacts the world. Sign up here.
Across China, cities are locking down their residents, supply lines are rupturing, and officials are scrambling to secure the movement of basic goods – as its largest ever recorded outbreak of Covid-19 threatens to spiral into a national crisis of the government’s own making.
At least 44 Chinese cities are under either a full or partial lockdown as authorities persist in trying to curb the spread of the highly transmissible Omicron variant, according to a report from investment bank Nomura and CNN’s own reporting as of Thursday.
In Shanghai, the epicenter of the country’s latest outbreak, scenes once unimaginable for the hyper-modern financial capital have become part of the daily struggle for 25 million people. There, residents forbidden to leave the confines of their apartments or housing blocks for weeks have been desperate for food and freedom – some seen in social media clips screaming out of their windows in frustration or clashing with hazmat-clad workers. Even after the release of a tentative plan Monday for the partial relaxation of measures, there appears to be no end in sight.
The current situation may mark the most significant challenge for the country – and, arguably, for Chinese leader Xi Jinping – since the initial outbreak of Covid-19 in Wuhan over two years ago. And for Xi, it comes at a particularly sensitive time, months before his expected step into a nearly unprecedented third term in power at the twice-a-decade Party Congress this fall.
The stakes are high for the leader – China’s most powerful in decades – as he has placed his personal stamp firmly on the “dynamic zero-Covid” objective driving these unbending measures, where even a small number of cases can spark sweeping disease controls.
“We need to overcome paralysis in the face of risk, war-weariness, leaving things to chance and becoming relaxed,” state media reported Xi saying Wednesday, calling on the nation to “strictly implement normalized prevention and control measures.”
In China, the local officials rolling out Covid-19 measures, like those in Shanghai, typically get blamed for mismanagement when there are problems – a more acceptable target than the central government and its policies, in the country’s tightly controlled political environment. And it’s not expected that a Covid crisis will imperil Xi’s likely third term.
But as the outbreak enters a critical phase – with some cities already under lockdown for weeks and a top national health official warning Tuesday that Shanghai’s outbreak had “not been effectively contained” – China’s ruling Communist Party and its leader will have to grapple with the economic fallout and the growing possibility that, like the virus, anger against the government seen in Shanghai could spread.
Xi has ordered local officials to do all they can to stop the virus, while also minimizing the “impact on economic and social development” – an order that, counter-intuitively, is expected to push local officials to clamp down with harsh measures at the sign of a few cases, or even preemptively, in the wake of the crisis in Shanghai.
“Shanghai officials were trying to thread this needle they’ve been asked to thread, which is, ‘let’s maintain zero-Covid, while also not disrupting anybody’s life.’ They focused a little bit more on the ‘not disrupting people’s lives’ (side). And they failed,” said Trey McArver, partner and co-founder at the China policy research group Trivium.
“The lesson that everybody’s going to learn is that, actually, you really have to focus on the zero-Covid part,” he said.
As of Tuesday, health authorities said more than 320,000 local Covid-19 cases had been reported across 31 provinces, including those in Shanghai, since March 1.
Already dozens of cities have some form of lockdown, even though the vast majority of those total cases have been found in Shanghai and the northeastern province of Jilin. Getting supplies across the country has become a steep challenge, with some expressways closed, and truck drivers ensnared in quarantine or at thousands of highway health checkpoints. Some cities have discouraged their residents from leaving, like the major southern port of Guangzhou, which requires its 18 million people to show a negative Covid test if they want to get out.
“You could basically say the whole country now is like a large number of isolated islands,” said Yanzhong Huang, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations.
The situation has spurred various ministries in Beijing into action, with a National Development and Reform Commission official pledging Tuesday to “actively coordinate with local governments” and “employ big data” to ensure essentials get delivered.
Meanwhile, health officials and state media have amped up public messaging on why China must stick to the policy, citing the risks, especially to its large and under-vaccinated elderly population, of a widespread outbreak in the country of 1.4 billion.
Those health concerns come alongside a “hidden” political calculation of the costs of a large-scale outbreak, according to Huang.
“(Beijing is) considering the perceived impact on political and social economic stability, considering the impact on the leadership transition ahead of the Party Congress, and considering the regime legitimacy – there is a lot at stake,” said Huang.
But the risks for the Communist Party of keeping the policy, which has sparked mounting frustration and anger in Shanghai and threatens more disruption, is also clear – especially as the country is over 88% vaccinated and most cases, authorities say, remain mild.
“Economic slowdown is quite a big concern,” said Alfred Wu, an associate professor in the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at National University of Singapore.
“The central government always utilizes so-called economic performance to enhance their legitimacy. So how are they going to (explain) sluggish economic performance? I don’t know. But one thing is very sure, people will be suffering.”
With Xi’s name so closely associated with the policies, the leader has linked himself to their success.
“When you’ve so clearly centralized power in one person’s hands, then I think you can plausibly lay any problems at that person’s feet – so it obviously reflects poorly on him,” said McArver.
But as for whether this would imperil the leader’s third term, “the answer is no,” he said, pointing to what observers of China’s opaque elite politics widely believe to be a void of any real competition for the top role.
Meanwhile, it’s possible that even from the depths of the current challenge – if they can find a way to bring the outbreaks largely under control – the central government could spin a political win, akin to what they did in Wuhan in 2020, analysts say.
Then, there was significant anger against the government, for example following the death of the whistleblowing doctor Li Wenliang, but China’s Communist Party emerged from the crisis to paint its stringent control strategy as an example of its superior governance.
There has been clear frustration against the government this time around, spilling onto social media this week as users adopted pro-China, trending hashtags en masse to make veiled or sarcastic comments against the government – before being censored.
But there are also ready scapegoats across the country in the form of local government officials, who are under enormous pressure and can be blamed for failures in the implementation of the “zero-Covid” policy, shifting fault away from the central government’s policy itself, experts say. Many cadres have been fired or demoted throughout the pandemic, including recently in Shanghai, with details typically reported by state media.
“The Chinese central government is very, very careful and also very, very smart in turning the anger on the local governments instead of themselves,” said Wu.
And in a political environment where all dissent is quashed, the narrative of Xi’s Party will dominate.
However, some argue that China has painted itself into a corner where it now needs to uphold its stringent policy, after reveling for two years in the success of “zero-Covid,” while scaremongering about the virus and generating broad support for the policy.
Huang puts it this way: “We should never underestimate the government capacity to redefine its narrative to sustain the public support. And we should never underestimate the people’s tolerance, even for policies that harm their interest.”
CNN’s Beijing bureau contributed to this report.