Political stakes high as Beijing responds to the virus outbreak
Beijing, April 29 (BUS): Classes have been suspended. Buildings and communities have been closed. Collective test for residents. The Associated Press reported that rushing to stock up on food, just in case.
Beijing, China’s sprawling capital, is starting to look like other Chinese cities grappling with the latest omicron-type wave of the coronavirus.
Authorities are moving quickly to try to prevent a massive outbreak of COVID-19 that could lead to a citywide lockdown like the one that has paralyzed Shanghai for more than three weeks. The political stakes are high as the ruling Communist Party prepares for a major congress this fall as President Xi Jinping seeks a third five-year term to reassert his position as China’s undisputed leader.
Xi and the party’s main policy-making body, the Politburo, reaffirmed their commitment to the “zero COVID” policy on Friday, putting China at odds with much of the world. While many countries are scrapping restrictions and trying to live with the virus, China is keeping its international borders largely closed and closing entire cities to all but essential travel.
The Politburo acknowledged the economic cost of the lockdowns, saying that efforts should be made to “reduce the impact of the epidemic on economic and social development,” the official Xinhua News Agency reported.
Despite the toll on the economy and daily life, the no-COVID approach was hailed by the Communist Party as a virtuous show of self-sacrifice under the slogan “perseverance is victory”. Officials often point to China’s relatively low death toll and accuse the United States and other countries of essentially capitulating.
Li Bin, vice minister of China’s National Health Commission, pointed out China’s massive population and insufficient medical resources.
“If we moderate the COVID response to allow the virus to spread, it will certainly lead to a large number of infections in a short period of time and a large number of severe and fatal cases,” Lee said at a media briefing on Friday.
Shanghai recorded 52 more deaths on Thursday, bringing the death toll to 337 in the case of the ongoing outbreak. There are signs of improvement in Shanghai, but the situation remains grave, Liang Wanyan, head of China’s COVID-19 expert team, said at the briefing. The city recorded about 15,000 cases Thursday, which is the vast majority nationwide.
Beijing’s strategy of early testing and isolation appears to be working so far. About 200 cases and no deaths have been reported since the outbreak began a week ago, although the daily number of new cases has risen to nearly 50.
“I think Beijing can do better than other cities because Beijing is the capital of China,” said community worker Liu Chuan. “My work is related to antivirus and prevention so I feel confident.”
Experts said the failed response to the virus outbreak in Beijing may not affect Xi’s plans for a third term, but it could damage the party’s reputation and with it room to maneuver on issues such as staff appointments.
“Even if Xi Jinping himself is untouchable, the pervasive sense of failure and disappointment is bad for Congress,” said Joseph Turjian, an expert on Chinese politics at American University in Washington, DC.
He said that the pomp and circumstance of the period leading up to the meeting and during the meeting would contrast with the frustration.
Liang, the COVID-19 expert team leader, said citywide lockdowns could be avoided if early detection, reporting, isolation and treatment were done well. “Fighting Omicron … does not necessarily mean shutting down the entire city,” he said.
What remains unclear is whether the highly contagious alternative will breach Beijing’s defenses, and whether containment measures will be implemented in a way that minimizes disruption to daily life and the work of government and businesses.
Beijing does not take risks. The government ordered indefinite school closures and three rounds of testing for all of the capital’s roughly 21 million residents this week. When cases are detected, entire buildings and sometimes neighborhoods are shut down.
Residents generally complied with the demands, joining long queues for testing and food, some stretching outside supermarkets this week.
The cautionary tale for Beijing is Shanghai, China’s largest city, where millions of residents have been under lockdown for more than three weeks. Food at times fell, and strict enforcement and lack of preparation caused heavy criticism, despite government efforts to censor it.
Images online showed residents grappling with police and confronting health workers, kicking barricades and screaming from their balconies and banging pots and pans to express their frustration.
The shutdown dealt a blow to the economy at a time when growth was already slowing. The International Monetary Fund cut its forecast for Chinese growth this year to 4.4% due to the closure of Shanghai and other industrial centers. That would be lower than last year’s 8.1% growth and below the Communist Party’s target of 5.5%.
Liang said the short-term pain will be replaced by long-term returns of normal production, life and economic development. “I think that’s very cost-effective and it’s kind of a balancing act as well,” Liang said.
Yu Changping, a pulmonologist at the People’s Hospital of Wuhan University, agreed.
“The inconvenience to people’s lives or the economic impact is the pain we have to suffer and the price we have to pay,” Yu said. “But if we fail to prevent the spread of the virus, we will suffer greater losses with a greater and broader social and economic impact.”
Any shortcomings in the government’s response can inspire citizens to take matters into their own hands, eroding party control, said John Théophile Dreyer, a specialist in Chinese politics at the University of Miami.
Shanghai has failed in areas such as distributing food, medicine, and supplies for the elderly and pets. In response, the residents banded together in groups dedicated to providing relief, a development which the party might have found disturbing,
Will the party government be able to reassert control once the sense of crisis subsides? “I don’t think they will find it very easy to do,” Dreyer said.