Xi has neither acknowledged the futility of his zero-COVID policy nor its disastrous social and economic consequences
On course to be the first leader in China to have more than two presidential terms, President
Xi Jinping would have liked most of 2022 to be uneventful. At least till the 20th Party Congress slated for later this year. But suddenly too many events are now happening in China. Unfortunately for Xi Jinping, none are harbingers of good times. The crippling lockdowns and the gloomy economic scenario come just six months prior to the all-important meeting of top communist party leaders where Xi Jinping is expecting to be anointed as leader for life.
At this point, there are about 345 million Chinese citizens in 46 cities who are living under strict Covid controls. Since authorities are struggling to keep the Omicron outbreak under control in Beijing, it seems the capital could also witness stricter measures in coming days. This would aggravate the simmering anger of common citizens against the CCP's heavy-handed approach towards tackling the new outbreak. Shanghai, which has 26 million residents, has been locked up for over five weeks. It is unclear when the draconian restrictions will be lifted.
Though there are no clear indications of any leadership challenge to Xi Jinping, growing public anger could become a catalyst for a larger movement. Any such possibility poses a major threat to his third presidential term.
In the last two years, Xi's propaganda machinery has made comparisons between China's handling of the pandemic and that of America. In fact, this is now one of the primary arguments to justify thePresident's impending third termmade possible by constitutional amendments. Spiralling covid cases, draconian controls and outrage over lack of essential goods could become fertile ground for citizens to question both the communist party and its top-most leader. This could result in more than just social media resentment, which is already visible on China's popular site, Weibo.
Besides the dire economic, social and psychological consequences on individuals and families, repeated lockdowns due to rising cases will puncture holes into the carefully created cult of Xi Jinping. Last year as China celebrated its success in curbing Covid, giant cut-outs of Xi were put up all over the city of Wuhan. Coronavirus pandemic originated in the city of Wuhan in November 2019. After taking all the credit of overcoming earlier variants of coronavirus, China's most powerful leader will not be able to escape closerscrutiny if the virus spreads or if lockdowns are mishandled.
The devastating economic costs of repeated and prolonged lockdowns are also now beginning to show on the world's second largest economy. The non-manufacturing Purchasing Managers' Index (PMI) for the month of April dropped to 41.9 from 48.4 in February. This was the second consecutive month of fall in the PMI. A reading below 50 indicates a contraction in the economy, pointing towards lower orders and lesser demand. Manufacturing PMI clocked 47.4, highlighting that the world's factory was hit by both demand and supply shocks due to Xi's zero-Covid policy. There are now concerns that the supply chain disruptions in Chinese economy may not improve soon.
The political impact of such a situation would be toxic, made worse since the Chinese President has neither acknowledged the futility of his zero-Covid policy nor its disastrous social and economic consequences. Neither has Xi publicly called for any measure to alleviate the pain of ordinary citizens. Hechose to meetChina's winter Olympians as Shanghai residents scrambled for food,and hapless citizens were told to eat one meal a daydue to the grossly inadequate supplies.Instead, the CCP swung into action to ban hashtags on Weibo where all posts related to food shortages were censored drawing widespread criticism.
This tone-deaf approach, a bi-product of the cult of triumphalism of Xi Jinping, complicates matters for the President. At some point China's elites and influential businessmen will start asking “should Xi be given a third term?”. If economic activity continues to get hit, Chinese businesses will be forced to evaluate the consequences of Xi Jinping ruling China indefinitely.
Of course, none of this will be out in the open, but Shanghai's lockdown will hit China's GDP by 2 percent. If Beijing comes under similar conditions, China's GDP will be further hit by 1 percent. This could become a catalyst to seek accountability from Xi and his coterie.
Unlike any other country, there are fewer uncertainties in China's controlled political landscape. But it seems premature to predict the headwinds that could impact the outcome of China's most important event of the decade.
(The writer is a senior journalist and author of “Blinkers Off, How Will The World Counter China”. The views expressed are personal.)