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The Zero-COVID Revolution?
After nearly three years – and the largest and most politically charged protests since the pro-democracy movement that was brutally crushed in 1989 – China appears to be abandoning its economy-stifling zero-COVID policy. But the transition will be tricky, not only from a public-health perspective, but also politically.
As Columbia University’s Shang-Jin Wei points out, China’s containment policies may well have saved at least a million lives, whose statistical value could be as high as $1 trillion – far more than the $384 billion in lost GDP. Ultimately, where one stands on the policy depends on the value they assign to the freedoms lost to zero-COVID. And, for a growing share of China’s population, this value exceeds that of keeping the virus at bay.
In China-based economist Qian Liu’s view, this shift in public opinion was a prerequisite for policy change. Having touted zero-COVID “too well (domestically, at least) for too long,” China’s government feared that abandoning the policy would trigger a public backlash. The protests changed that calculation. “Given the choice between restoring economic growth” – the basis of the Communist Party of China’s legitimacy – “and maintaining the now-unpopular zero-COVID policy, growth wins.”
But, according to Minxin Pei of Claremont McKenna College, the government is still hedging its bets. Despite relaxing restrictions, China’s leaders have hesitated to take a clear stance on zero-COVID, because they “do not want to be blamed for whatever surge in infections, hospitalizations, and deaths follows a reopening.” This reluctance to devise a “comprehensive and systematic exit strategy” – and “take responsibility for its outcomes” – could have disastrous results.
London Business School’s S. Alex Yang and the University of Hong Kong’s Angela Huyue Zhang explain what such a strategy should entail. Emulating the reform and opening up of four decades ago, they argue, China should “carve out ‘special health zones’ in high-risk and well-resourced cities,” collect data to inform the loosening of restrictions elsewhere, and pool resources at both the regional and national levels.
But, as Northwestern University’s Nancy Qian notes, the challenge ahead is as political as it is technical. In fact, the “zero-COVID drama could threaten the legitimacy of the entire Chinese government – and nearly 75 years of one-party rule.” Well aware of this risk, the government is likely to “tighten control over the public sphere” further, even as it eases its COVID restrictions. Pessimists might thus “predict that the coming years are likely to bring ever tighter government control amid rising instability.”
What it will not bring, Yi Fuxian of the University of Wisconsin-Madison makes clear, is democratization. The reason boils down to simple demographics: “Decades of strict family-planning policies have left China with too few young people to join the fight” for democratic reform.