From Zero to Hero? The Domestic and International Repercussions of China’s Unprepared Reopening

As an ardent devotee of Chairman Mao, Xi Jinping seems never to fail to snatch opportunities to assert the masculine Mao-style leadership that he worships. Three years ago, it was his personal commitment to overseeing and executing the Zero Covid policy; and now, it was his abrupt reversal of the very same policy that once crowned the China Model of combatting Covid. With the ongoing surge in Covid cases and deaths that the Chinese government is scrambling to downplay, the “China Fantasy” is facing its trial. So is Xi Jinping’s blueprint for China’s swift transition from Zero Covid to a heroic economic and political comeback.

Those who are the first to bear the brunt of the sudden Covid policy U-turn are no other than the Chinese people. Having isolated itself from first-hand contact with the continuous variants of Covid, China is ill-prepared to confront the dual shock brought by the combination of the highly contagious Omicron variant and the world’s largest population. The lack of effective drugs and vaccines for the disease nationwide is almost paralyzing China’s public health system. Hospitals are overwhelmed by patient influx and crematoriums are packed with dead bodies. To make matters worse, uneven distribution of medical resources between China’s urban and rural areas is highly likely to lead the virus to an onslaught on the countryside as the travel rush during the Chinese lunar new year approaches. On the other hand, the Chinese government’s constant rejection to mRNA vaccines offered by the US is pushing desperate people to resort to the black market for Pfizer’s Paxlovid, the price of which is almost nine times its official quote.

Meanwhile, the economic reality is a far cry from Xi’s expectation. “Revenge spending” did not come as expected to meet the pent-up demand of Chinese consumers. Demonization of Covid by the Chinese government over the past three years has instilled risk-averseness in the heads of quite a large proportion of Chinese people. Self-imposed isolation, rather than a spending spree, becomes many people’s first reaction to the end of the lockdown. As a result, both manufacturing and non-manufacturing indices of December 2022 experienced a decline compared to those of November, and the services PMI hit the lowest point ever since February 2020 when the very first outbreak of Covid began.

Xi’s intention to quickly rebuild China’s international reputation through the end of Zero Covid has also backfired—it has invited not recognition or applause, but doubts and criticism. Sticking to the same uncooperativeness as it demonstrated in the early stages of Covid outbreak in 2020, China again chose to share little detailed information or data on its post-Zero Covid situation with WHO. China’s long-standing opposition to information transparency, Covid-related in particular, is by no means contributing to the betterment of WHO’s global surveillance network of Covid.

The outgrowth of rising concerns about Beijing’s unreliable Covid data is a new round of entry restrictions imposed by other countries on travelers from China. The US, the UK, Japan, and some EU countries such as Italy and France have reinstated either pre-flight Covid tests or testing upon arrival. Dubbing those testing requirements as “discriminatory” political tricks with the real intention of “attacking the country’s system”, the Chinese government threatened countermeasures to those “unacceptable excessive practices”.

Against the backdrop of the diplomatic tensions, China appointed its former US ambassador Qin Gang—a stalwart practitioner of the “Wolf Warrior” diplomacy—to be its new foreign minister. This portends the déjà vu of the assertive foreign policy that China upheld in response to the call for an independent investigation into the origins of coronavirus over the past two years. A new round of “Wolf Warrior” crusade is ready to be set in motion considering Xi’s hallmark philosophy on crisis management—denying, attacking, and then claiming victory. This could largely devalue the China’s charm offensive during the G20 summit last year and add more uncertainty to the rocky US-China relations, especially after Kevin McCarthy who is equipped with his tough-on-China agenda won the US House Speakership.

Perhaps Taiwan should be the one to watch China’s reopening most closely. “Ours is a big country. It is only natural for different people to have different concerns or hold different views on the same issue.” In his new year address of 2023, Xi unprecedently qualified his confidence in Chinese people’s unconditional unity of everything. This is not only a euphemistic response to the widespread protests in last November, but a sign of his not-so-consolidated power within the Chinese Communist Party. If the Covid-caused death toll and sluggish economy remain mired in a difficult situation, Taiwan could come in handy for Xi’s expediency to lift the lid on the domestic pressure.

As millions of Chinese people are suffering from the Covid, China conducted another large-scale incursion into Taiwan’s air defense zone and its third-largest joint naval drills with Russia near the Taiwan Strait. On top of that, Xi tightened his grip on the Taiwan Affairs Office—a Chinese agency responsible for setting Taiwan related policies—by appointing one of his close confidants as its new head. Despite his surprising soft tone toward Taiwan in his new year address, Xi has moved to take full control over business regarding Taiwan, which exhibits his intention to use the self-governing island, at least for 2023, as his diversionary strategy to counter the growing dissatisfaction with his mishandling of Covid. Taiwan should be ready for a series of attitude change—probably switching back and forth between the “stick” and the “carrot”—from China in 2023.

China is now stuck in a dilemma between border reopening and institutional contracting. As a result, the information gap, both domestic and international, is exhausting the last bit of trust that Chinese people and the international community have in the Chinese government. Under the authority of Xi Jinping whose credibility has been badly besmirched, the Chinese government is falling into the Tacitus Trap—a trust crisis that brings the government unpopularity regardless of what it does, the consequence of which is going to stymie China’s full recovery from the Covid.

Xi’s fantasized blitzkrieg Zero Covid policy reversal to portray himself as a hero foundered. It took China out of the frying pan into the fire—the already sluggish economy is hit harder by lower consumer and investor confidence and the already hard-pressed people are suffering more from the infection and loss of family and friends. Beijing will find itself having a hard time balancing restoring its domestic stability and regaining international credence. Unfortunately, the real time-efficient solution—enhance its Covid transparency and cooperate with the international community—is not likely to be considered by its leader in any case.

Jiachen Shi
Jiachen Shi
Jiachen Shi is a Ph.D. candidate in Political Science at Tulane University. He received his M.A. in International Relations from the University of Liverpool and International Postgraduate Certificate in Education (PGCEi) from the University of Nottingham. His research interests include U.S.-China relations, American politics, political psychology, and political economy.