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Hong Kong CNN  — 

For nearly three years, China’s leader Xi Jinping has staked his political legitimacy and prestige on zero-Covid.

Styling himself as the “commander-in-chief” of a “people’s war” against the virus, he has lauded the hard-line policy for “putting people and their lives first,” and held up its success as proof of the superiority of China’s authoritarian system.

Now, as his costly strategy gets dismantled in an abrupt U-turn following nationwide protests against it, Xi has fallen silent.

Across the country, Covid testing booths, health code scanning signs and lockdown barriers are being removed at dizzying speed. As infections run rampant, authorities have scrapped a virus-tracking app and given up on reporting asymptomatic infections altogether (they accounted for the bulk of the country’s official caseload). The rest of the case count has been rendered meaningless too, as cities roll back mass testing and allow people to use antigen tests and isolate at home.

While the easing of stifling restrictions is a long-awaited relief for many who have grown frustrated with the economic and social costs of zero-Covid, the abruptness and haphazardness of it has left residents startled, confused or anxious.

Having had their daily lives dictated by Covid controls imposed by the state and fear of the virus instilled by propaganda throughout the pandemic, the public is now told to be “the first responsible person for your own health” – or essentially, to fend for themselves.

Workers in hazmat suits deliver vegetables to residents at a locked-down neighborhood in Shanghai in March.

State media and health officials have flipped from preaching the dangers of the virus to downplaying its threat. Zhong Nanshan, a top Covid-19 expert and key public voice in the pandemic, suggested Thursday that Omicron should really be called “coronavirus cold,” citing its similar fatality rate to seasonal flu and limited infection in the lungs.

In Beijing, residents have rushed to stock up on over-the-counter medicines and antigen tests, leading to shortages at pharmacies and online shopping sites. Streets and shopping malls remain largely deserted, as people stay home to recover from Covid or to avoid being infected.

As the Chinese capital grapples with an unprecedented coronavirus wave, the rest of the country is expected to follow – if not in the midst of it already.

All the while, Xi has not made any public remarks on the pivotal shift, or the chaos it has unleashed.

The top leader was last quoted in state media commanding the fight against Covid on November 10, at a meeting of the Communist Party’s ruling Politburo. There, he vowed to “unswervingly” carry out “dynamic zero-Covid,” while minimizing its impact on the economy and society. He urged officials to properly guide public opinion and channel public sentiments, pledging to “resolutely win the battle.”

The next day, the Chinese government issued 20 new guidelines for “optimizing” Covid measures to limit their disruption of daily life and the economy, while insisting “it was not an easing of control, let alone reopening or ‘lying flat’” – a phrase commonly used to describe doing the bare minimum.

But Xi’s directives for both virus elimination and economic stability proved to be a mission impossible for local authorities, given the high transmissibility of Omicron. As cases surged across Beijing, Guangzhou and Chongqing, local authorities reverted to strict lockdowns and quarantines, quashing public hopes for a respite from the stifling measures that have upended lives, shuttered businesses and led to a growing list of tragedies.

Then, a deadly apartment fire in the western city of Urumqi became the final straw, igniting a collective uproar from people who’d had enough. Protests against zero-Covid broke out across the country, posing the starkest challenge to Xi’s authority since he came to power.

What followed is a rapid and sweeping dismantling of the zero-Covid regime and a hasty about-face in propaganda messaging. The economic toll, financial burden and unstoppable nature of a highly infectious virus are all underlying factors that necessitated the shift, but it took an unprecedented explosion of dissent to prod the government to accelerate the long-overdue process.

“It just shows how important these social protests were in convincing the top leader himself it’s the time to move on,” said Yanzhong Huang, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. “Otherwise it couldn’t be explained why right before the protests, they were actually doubling down on zero-Covid and reversing the relaxation policies.”

Epidemic control workers wear PPE to prevent the spread of COVID-19 as they stand guard outside a community in lockdown on November 29, 2022 in Beijing, China.
Expert: China has failed to prepare residents when zero-Covid policy ends
02:46 - Source: CNN

Given the government’s obsession with control, it is striking how little it has prepared for such a drastic exit from the policy. The country has fallen short on preparations like bolstering the elderly vaccination rate, upping surge and intensive care capacity in hospitals, and stockpiling antiviral medications.

While experts outside of China warn of a dark winter ahead – with some studies projecting over a million Covid deaths, the party’s propaganda machine is already depicting a China marching “from victory to new victory.”

On Thursday, a front-page commentary on the People’s Daily, the party’s flagship mouthpiece, gave a glowing review of the country’s fight against Covid over the past three years. The conclusion: Xi’s policy has been “completely correct” all along.

“The reality has fully proved that our pandemic policy is correct, scientific and effective. It has won the endorsement of the people and can stand the test of history,” said the 11,000-word article, which cited Shanghai’s painful two-month lockdown as a notable achievement.

“After three years of efforts, we have the conditions, mechanisms, systems, teams and medicine to lay the foundation for an all-round victory in the fight against the epidemic,” it said.

By the official narrative, the party – and by extension its supreme leader Xi – is infallible. But no matter how much the party attempts to rewrite history and doctor the collective memory of the Chinese people, parts of the public will always remember their lived experience during zero-Covid – the frustration of being confined to home for weeks or even months on end, the desperation of losing jobs and income, the heartbreak of seeing loved ones being denied emergency medical care due to draconian lockdowns. For some, their trust in the government has forever been dented.

“In China, going back decades now, society has gone through a lot of scars,” said Dali Yang, a political scientist at the University of Chicago. “There have been quite a few of those scars that are generational. And in s