The more Beijing officials struggle to be in control, the more they lose it
Protests in China intensify, while new Covid cases exploded to over 40,000 on Sunday. Officials in Beijing are now facing interrelated economic, health, and political crises.
What less than two years ago was coming as a clear decision now looks less than sure since tough epidemic controls seem to have done more wrong than good.
For three consecutive days, different segments of Chinese society are uniting in demonstrations against the government, beginning to resemble the mass protests in 1989.
Although hard to measure in size, and still sporadic, students and workers are once again raging against the political rule, which triggered stagnant wages and 18% inflation.
This is happening just after a reversal of the “zero-Covid” policy was signaled by Beijing earlier in November, easing quarantine requirements for entering the country and simplifying a system for designating high-risk areas.
As an immediate economic consequence, traders had poured back into beat-up shares in Chinese companies, with the Hang Seng China Enterprises index rocketing up 27% in 11 trading days.
Yet daily cases driven by the evasive Omicron variant are now reaching peaks unseen since the chaotic days of Shanghai’s harsh lockdown in the spring.
Since officials are reimposing curbs, social unrest has sparkled and this will accelerate the reversal of nascent investor optimism, as Reuters notes.
President Xi Jinping is caught between a rock and a hard place. Not all citizens are embracing relaxation, so officials’ decisions about Covid-19 measures are even tougher to take.
For every citizen on the street griping about lockdowns, there is another who is terrified of catching Covid-19.
When the city of Shijiazhuang tried to ease epidemic controls, for example, many residents cowered inside their flats instead of going shopping.
Such behavior undermines arguments that abandoning Xi’s zero-Covid policy will instantly stimulate economic activity.
But the fact remains: the economy is suffering in 2022, with real estate crashing, retail spending tepid, and exports down.
The government has to make a decision to curb further contraction and avoid being vague and seemingly contradictory in its messaging.
That’s exactly how Chinese officials responded to growing infections this month, and that has sparked public confusion.