After years of maintaining a strict zero-Covid policy, the Chinese government became a hostage to it. There were several reasons for this strategy. First of all, the elderly population had low rates of vaccination, with 80 million people aged over 80 being unvaccinated, 44% of the general population had not received a booster shot, and this percentage rises to 60% in those aged over 80.
Although studies in Hong Kong comparing Sinovac’s CoronaVac vaccine with Pfizer-BioNTech’s mRNA vaccine were inconclusive, the Chinese government did not seem to have much confidence in the efficacy of Chinese vaccines; it clearly feared a significant increase in the number of casualties (over a million people dying in the short term) and a huge number of Covid-19 patient admissions that could overwhelm hospitals (the number of beds in ICUs of Chinese hospitals is low, <4 / 100,000 population).
Notwithstanding the WHO has publicly stated that the policy of zero-Covid is “unsustainable,” the fact remains that in the Chinese Party-State, until the 20th Communist Party of China (CPC) Congress in October of this year, the political priority was the “primacy of stability”.
After demonstrations protesting the never-ending zero-Covid policy in late November and with economic stability at stake, the Chinese government realized it needed a change in policy, without overtly stating it. On December 7, it approved a 10-point plan, gave provincial authorities leeway in tackling Covid-19 – which led to reductions in quarantine periods and more a rational and focused application of city lockdowns and testing – and changed the qualification of the severity of Covid-19 (from an infectious disease A to B).
The Chinese government’s attitude of ending the zero-Covid policy in practice will allow economic growth to resume, although it carries obvious social and health risks, as evidenced by the data of elderly people unvaccinated or without a booster dose and the limited capacity of ICU beds in hospitals.
This policy shift contains important lessons.
In the Chinese Party-State, all officers – whether at the state, provincial, or state-owned enterprise level – know that policies or actions leading to social unrest, especially the disruption of public order, have serious consequences for the respective officers. In this case, with demonstrations having occurred spontaneously in numerous cities across China, it was clear that local or provincial authorities were not to blame. In relation to a policy that was unique in the world and that was beginning to be met with strong disapproval and internal opposition, the CPC leadership was forced to react by completely changing this policy to preserve political and social stability and to avoid losing authority.
On the other hand, and despite the departure of leaders like Li Keqiang, who symbolized the primacy of economic growth, the new Party leadership has shown itself to be attentive by quickly changing course before the slowdown of the Chinese economy forced the country into recession. Were that to happen, it could jeopardize the pact underlying the CPC’s ‘mandate from Heaven’: severe reduction of political and civil rights in return for continuous economic growth and individual prosperity.