Inflexible ‘zero-COVID’ policy illustrates a danger of authoritarianism

China may be caught in a dilemma in which, to protect its leader’s prestige, the country cannot revise a policy even if it wants to. Its rigid infection control measures are undesirable for both domestic stability and the global economy.

The administration of Chinese President Xi Jinping is continuing its “zero-COVID” policy in an effort to contain the coronavirus pandemic by thoroughly restricting the activities of residents.

Shanghai, China’s largest city with a population of about 25 million, lifted on June 1 a lockdown that lasted about two months. But extreme measures, such as putting entire residential areas under lockdown if even one person is infected there, have not changed.

This is far from normalizing economic activities and citizens’ lives.

The economic deterioration is serious. China’s economic growth in the January-March quarter was 4.8%, far below the government’s annual target of around 5.5%. In Shanghai, industrial production in April fell more than 60% from a year earlier, and consumption dropped to a record-level low, with no new cars sold, among other factors.

The impact is not limited to China alone. The global economy has been shaken by supply chain disruptions caused by the shutdown of factory operations and logistical gridlock caused by the suspension of functions of ports and airports. The Xi administration should also pay attention to the negative aspects of its measures against coronavirus infections.

“We don’t think that [China’s zero-COVID strategy] is sustainable. I think a shift would be very important,” said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director general of the World Health Organization (WHO).

While it is true that lockdowns and other measures have produced a certain result in curbing infections, it is difficult to completely contain the highly contagious coronavirus variants. Tedros’ remark is on target.

Even in China, in spite of strict control on freedom of speech, there has been no end to demonstrations and criticism on social media against the zero-COVID policy. It can be said this shows great accumulated public dissatisfaction.

An authority on infectious diseases in China also claims that it would be impossible to continue the current zero-COVID policy for a long time because of the heavy burden on the economy and society. However, the Xi administration has declared its adherence to its policy, stating that it would “resolutely fight against any words and acts that deny our country’s epidemic prevention policies.”

The Xi administration has been touting the low numbers of coronavirus deaths and infections compared with those in Western nations as evidence of the superiority of the Communist Party’s governance system. All the more because of that, the administration may be thinking it is impossible to revise its policy.

The Chinese government’s failure to flexibly revise its policy and its prioritization of political considerations in matters requiring scientific knowledge have shown one of the dangers of an authoritarian regime.

Vaccination rates among the elderly are low in China. The medical system in rural areas is also fragile. In response, the Xi administration should introduce more effective vaccines from Western nations and to take concrete measures in rural areas in this regard.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, June 8, 2022)