The Politburo Standing Committee met on Thursday, November 10, to discuss China’s COVID strategy. A translation of the meeting readout is below.
There are two takeaways from this meeting. First, the Politburo Standing Committee has reaffirmed China’s COVID strategy and the “dynamic zero” policy while announcing that there will be a package of 20 measures to "optimise" virus prevention and control work. We don't know what these measures will entail yet, but the detail will probably emerge in the coming days.
Second, the language used (and omitted) by Politburo Standing Committee suggest a shift is underway with a heightened recognition that the social and economic fallout from the tough COVID measures needs to be addressed.
Putting the two together, what we have is a mixed picture. On the one hand, China is unlikely to reopen any time soon, and the tough measures will continue to be the norm in the short term with their accompanying human costs.
On the other hand, we will see added efforts to address the fallout from government policy, including efforts to curb excessive local government actions and restore some semblance of normalcy to life and work where possible.
The language used (and omitted) by the readout of the latest Politburo Standing Committee meeting, when compared to previous statements at the Politburo level (the July Politburo meeting and the May Politburo Standing Committee meeting), show that a shift is underway. Three aspects deserve particular attention: COVID as a political issue, on the need for tough measures, and the responsibilities of local officials.
First, at the latest meeting, the Politburo Standing Committee did not characterise COVID as a "political" issue, which it did in May, as did the full Politburo in July. For reference, the July Politburo meeting noted that:
"Persistence is victory...The relationship between epidemic prevention and control and economic and social development should be looked at comprehensively, systematically and with a long-term view, especially from a political point of view with a political calculus..."
(bold emphasis added)
In the Party-state system, "political" issues are more important than other issues, such as those labelled as "economic" or "social" issues. Characterising a policy or issue as a matter of political stance or principle means that the room for local initiative and centre-local bargaining is small. It also signifies the heightened political stakes (both rewards and punishments) for local officials.
In this case, COVID and the zero-COVID policy have not been appended with the "political" label, meaning a policy change is now more likely than before when that label was still affixed. While this does not guarantee a policy change, it at least removes an obstacle.
Second, there is a notable softening in the tone of the language used on the need for tough measures. The triumphant, emotive and strident language used by the Politburo Standing Committee in May has given way to something flat. This is probably because the leadership no longer wants to mobilise officials from across the country to tighten measures further, but rather to improve existing measures.
Finally and related, the language on local officials' responsibilities indicates a shift of focus towards addressing social and economic fallout from local policy implementation.
Back in May, the Politburo Standing Committee had some tough language for local officials:
"anyone who fails to perform their duties and responsibilities leading to epidemic outbreaks must be immediately and severely investigated, held accountable and dealt with according to Party rules and laws of the state."
Compare the above to the latest language, which speaks against "excessive policy steps":
"[We must] not relax the necessary virus prevention measures and oppose irresponsible attitudes on the one hand, and on the other, oppose and overcome formalism and bureaucratism, and correct such practices as “local governments taking excessive policy steps” and a “one-size-fits-all approach."
To conclude, Beijing is opting for gradualism rather than a sudden and major shift in its zero-COVID policy.
Politburo Standing Committee meeting readout
中共中央政治局常务委员会召开会议 听取新冠肺炎疫情防控工作汇报 研究部署进一步优化防控工作的二十条措施 中共中央总书记习近平主持会议
The Standing Committee of the Political Bureau of the Communist Party of China Central Committee convened a meeting. It heard reports on the COVID-19 prevention and control work, and studied and planned twenty measures to optimise it further. The General Secretary of the Communist Party of China Central Committee, Xi Jinping, presided over the meeting.
Xinhua (Beijing), November 10 — The Standing Committee of the Political Bureau of the Communist Party of China Central Committee [hereafter “Politburo Standing Committee”] convened a meeting on November 10. It heard reports on the COVID-19 prevention and control work, and studied and planned twenty measures to optimise it further. The General Secretary of the Communist Party of China Central Committee, Xi Jinping, presided over the meeting and delivered an important speech.
The Politburo Standing Committee pointed out that, at present, COVID-19 continues to mutate, global outbreaks are still prevalent, and new outbreaks are constantly occurring domestically. China has a large population, many vulnerable people, uneven development between regions, insufficient total medical resources, and sizeable outbreaks in certain areas. Due to virus mutation and seasonal factors in winter and spring, the spread and scale of the outbreaks will likely expand further. The prevention and control situation remains severe, and we must maintain our strategic determination and carry out prevention and control work well and with scientific precision.
The Politburo Standing Committee stressed the need to: