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Brief #110: Why is Beijing insistent on its approach to COVID?

Beijing has doggedly stood by its Zero-COVID strategy despite the rising concerns over its viability, cost and ethics. The harrowing stories from Shanghai are heightening these concerns, yet no course change is on the horizon. Why is Beijing insistent on its approach to COVID?

China’s Zero-COVID strategy aims to suppress and eliminate the spread of the virus. In contrast, most countries are moving towards “living with the virus” and mitigating the damages inflicted by severe cases. For Beijing, Zero-COVID serves, first and foremost, its political objectives: maintaining Party legitimacy and broader stability.

Two important narratives serve to highlight the political dimensions of Beijing’s calculus. The first is the system superiority narrative, which claims that China’s political system (with the Party at the helm) is superior to western democracies. Chinese state media tell us that while China has minimised casualties, millions have died across the US and Europe due to political dysfunction and governance failures in responding to the epidemic.

The second narrative is the moral superiority narrative, under which the Party-state claims that it always “puts the people first”. We are told Zero-COVID is the morally correct choice, whereas “living with the virus” is a recipe for disaster. China’s governance model is geared toward collective interest, so we are told, as opposed to western democracies, which encourage the pursuit of self-interests.

Chinese state media employ COVID infection and death numbers as rhetorical proof, not only of system superiority but also to highlight the Party-state’s moral superiority compared to political parties in western democracies. They bluntly and repeatedly inform their audiences that the disparities in the COVID numbers are the outcomes of competing ethos: China cherishes lives, whereas Western countries play politics with them.

Keeping COVID infection and death numbers low is vital to Beijing’s political and moral superiority claims. But as the costs associated with Zero-COVID rise (e.g., global isolation and continued socioeconomic disruptions), policy pressure for change will build. More Chinese people and officials will want their country to reopen and adapt to “living with the virus”. However, a formal change in strategy from Beijing will be unlikely this year.

For those of us thinking about Beijing’s narratives on COVID today, it remains evident that COVID numbers only tell part of the story. For example, not mentioned in official stats and rhetoric are the many who have suffered or died from the lack of medical care due to movement restrictions and the prioritisation of public health resources to fight COVID. Indeed, millions have suffered physical and mental hardship due to the government’s stringent measures, including lockdowns of cities.

If Beijing’s policy is to match its rhetoric about putting the people’s lives first, then Chinese leaders should reflect on what the fullest extent of preserving  “lives” entails and adjust the policy. As a matter of urgency, there needs to be a more encompassing understanding of “lives” beyond these narrow statistics obsessed over by officials.

By Adam Ni and Brian Wong