On 7 December 2022, the Chinese government announced that it would no longer enforce measures for the prevention and control of Covid-19, and on the same day, the State Council unveiled a list of ten actions, including the lifting of the requirement that citizens wishing to travel between regions of China had to produce a negative PCR test certificate and health code. The National Health Commission announced on 26 December that Covid-19 would no longer be treated as a fatal disease, and from 8 January 2023, China opened its borders and stopped the quarantining of incoming passengers.
These moves were seen as a complete abandonment of the zero-Covid policy and an acceptance that China would, like most other countries, have to learn to live with the virus.
Most outside observers believe that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s decision to drop the zero-Covid policy was precipitated by the outbreak of the “white paper protests” at the end of November 2022. However, these observers may have overlooked the power of the CCP’s party-state system to control society. In short, social movements can certainly exert pressure on the regime, but the CCP has shown itself to be less prone to giving in to popular protests than other authoritarian governments.
All in the plans
It would be more reasonable to argue that the CCP leadership was already intending to adjust its zero-Covid policy, given its negative impact on the Chinese economy and citizens’ livelihoods. However, the regime was loath to make too many changes immediately before or after the 20th National Party Congress held in mid-October, lest it affects the legitimacy of Xi Jinping’s continuation in power.
This seems to be an example of the regime “advancing with the times” (与时俱进 yushijujin), a recurring theme in CCP propaganda.
The CCP is focused on ensuring the survival of its regime. It had claimed that China’s system for handling major public health crises was superior to that of the West, and that zero-Covid had succeeded in minimising the spread of the virus.
But having secured another term in power at the 20th Congress, Xi Jinping now wants to get the Chinese economy back on track and restore social stability. This is why he decided to call a halt to the zero-Covid policy.
The official rhetoric is that the current variant of the virus is less lethal, and the country no longer needs to devote so many resources to preventing the epidemic. This seems to be an example of the regime “advancing with the times” (与时俱进 yushijujin), a recurring theme in CCP propaganda.
The CCP’s black box decision-making process makes it difficult for us to ascertain exactly why there was such a dramatic change of policy last December. To attribute it solely to the white paper protests would be to overestimate the power of the people in China.
Not a Tiananmen protest
Some observers have compared those protests to the Tiananmen protests of 1989, but the two movements are in fact very different. First of all, the white paper protesters had distinct and rather limited demands — for an end to the zero-Covid restrictions that were disrupting their lives. Unlike their Tiananmen counterparts, they were not calling for political reform, so it was easier for the CCP to find a solution.
...there are no obvious divisions in today’s Zhongnanhai, so it would be difficult for the white paper protesters to expand their movement further.
In addition, a key factor in the Tiananmen protests was the serious split at that time in Beijing’s top leadership, specifically the struggle between Zhao Ziyang and the conservatives. Zhao’s support for the student movement had the effect of intensifying the social resistance. But there are no obvious divisions in today’s Zhongnanhai, so it would be difficult for the white paper protesters to expand their movement further.
Little chance of weakening the leadership
What is more, the CCP has many tricks up its sleeve for dealing with social protests today — for example, either buying off or vilifying opinion leaders to split the movement. And since 1989, the regime has developed high-tech methods of monitoring protesters and stopping them from using public transportation, thus severely limiting widespread collective action. So, in contemporary China, protesters like those of the white paper movement have little chance of weakening Xi Jinping’s leadership, let alone overturning the CCP regime.
...a return to normality is more conducive to the maintenance of regime stability.
December’s decision to lift the Covid lockdown was most likely based on an overall examination of China’s political, social, and economic situation. For the CCP leadership, the advantages of ending zero-Covid are greater than the drawbacks, and in particular, a return to normality is more conducive to the maintenance of regime stability.
Of course, opening up the country again will have many detrimental side effects, such as spiralling infection rates which place a huge burden on China’s healthcare system. What is more, local officials are still unsure how to implement the new policy. After January 2023, many Covid-positive Chinese have been going overseas, which is also causing public health problems in other countries.
But the CCP is likely playing the long game. Through stricter social control and propaganda, the CCP continues to suppress people’s thoughts and behaviours. Unless there are more serious policy mistakes or power struggles in the future, it is difficult for white paper protests and sporadic demonstrations by college students to have a fatal impact on the legitimacy of the CCP regime.
Related: Covid protests: A repressed China needs an outlet to return to equilibrium | From zero-Covid to living with the virus: Chinese society's adaptability put to the test | China's elderly rulers must get used to the young criticising them | Why did the Taiwanese support China's A4 revolution? | China is finally easing Covid rules, but not all are happy