BEIJING: China’s top leaders warned against questioning Xi Jinping’s Covid Zero strategy, striking a more defensive tone as pressure builds to relax virus curbs and protect the economic growth that has long been a source of Communist Party strength.
The Politburo’s supreme seven-member Standing Committee pledged Thursday during a meeting led by Xi to “fight against any speech that distorts, questions or rejects our country’s Covid-control policy,” state broadcaster China Central Television said. The body reaffirmed its support for the lockdown-dependent approach, noting that China has been continuously calibrating measures since the first outbreak two years ago in Wuhan.
“Our pandemic prevention-and-control strategy is determined by the party’s nature and principles,” the seven-member committee said, according to CCTV. “Our policy can stand the test of history, and our measures are scientific and effective.”
The Standing Committee’s comments came after White House medical adviser Anthony Fauci said China’s virus lockdowns were unlikely to be successful in the long term. At home, too, some have begun to question whether the need to contain the virus justified the impact of lockdowns and resulting supply chain disruptions, after the nation’s economic activity contracted sharply in April.
One of the best known defenders of China’s policies, former Global Times Editor-in-Chief Hu Xijin, published and then soon deleted a WeChat post earlier Thursday suggesting that the economic costs of containing the virus shouldn’t exceed the public-health benefits. The national government should “either make low-cost containment work or tell the truth to the entire Chinese society” if the virus situation worsens in the capital, Hu said.
Xi can afford little internal dissent as he prepares for a twice-a-decade leadership reshuffle later this year, when he’s expected to secure a precedent-breaking third term. The statement didn’t mention the need to balance economic growth, which has been a key source of Communist Party legitimacy for more than four decades, suggesting Xi is staking his authority on a Covid policy he’s trumpeted as evidence of how China’s model of governance is superior to Western democracy.
‘Xi cannot afford to lose’
The Standing Committee statement shows Xi is seeking to fend opposition to the policy because nobody can challenge the party’s decisions, said Deng Yuwen, a former editor of a Communist Party newspaper. The Shanghai chaos reinforced Xi’s belief in Covid Zero because a high death toll would be blamed on the party, he added.
“No matter how much disunity from within, they still have to listen to Xi,” Deng said. “Covid prevention has become a fight that Xi cannot afford to lose.”
The rhetoric weighed on mainland stocks Friday, with the benchmark CSI 300 Index falling as much as 2.2%, outpacing regional losses. Other reasons for the weakness included surging US Treasury yields, the tightening cycle by the Federal Reserve and a selloff on Wall Street overnight.
In recent weeks, Chinese authorities have increasingly credited Xi with personally setting the tone for the nation’s Covid response, making any reversal riskier for the party. The Standing Committee’s statement was featured across the front page of all China’s major state-run newspapers Friday, while an editorial in a publication controlled by the party’s top disciplinary body linked the virus policy to a fundamental directive to safeguard Xi’s status as the party’s “core” leader.
Beijing posted 72 cases, up from 50 the day before, its 13th double-digit day. While the capital hasn’t been put under the full lockdown seen in recent weeks in Shanghai, restrictions have steadily advanced. Officials banned eating in restaurants, required negative test results to enter almost all public venues and encouraged residents in the eastern Chaoyang district, where the outbreak has concentrated, to work from home.
Meanwhile, Shanghai continues to struggle to achieve its goal of three consecutive days without new cases in the community, reporting 23 such infections Thursday. That’s even as overall cases citywide continue to fall to 4,269, compared with 4,651 a day earlier. Nationwide, China hasn’t reported a day without infections nationally since October.
China’s main strategy to minimize damage to its economy amid the rolling lockdowns is for companies and factories to operate in a “closed loop,” in which workers live and sleep on-site or in nearby accommodation that they’re shuttled to. This has helped Shanghai restart production at more than 70% of its industrial manufacturing facilities, while 90% of of 660 “key” industrial companies have resumed output, officials said this week.
But it’s unclear how long the closed loops can be sustained, given the resources required to feed and house thousands of workers at a time. The system also requires that workers don’t come into contact with anyone outside the loop and cannot see family members. The majority of Japanese factories in Shanghai haven’t yet resumed operating despite the city’s assurances that production is getting back on track.
The latest Politburo Standing Committee statement didn’t include previously stated pledges to “reconcile” the virus strategy with growth and “maximize the effectiveness of Covid containment measures at the least cost, and minimize the impact of the pandemic on the economy,” analysts for Nomura Holdings Inc. led by Chief China Economist Ting Lu wrote in a note Friday. “Clearly the Chinese government will keep its dynamic ZCS, if not strengthen, for a while,” the said, referring to the “Zero-Covid strategy.”
The Standing Committee noted that China has a large elderly population with insufficient overall medical resources, as well as imbalances in regional development. Relaxing Covid controls would lead to large-scale infections, a surge in serious cases and deaths, damaging the economy and people’s health, it said.
‘Persistence is victory’
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