China faces an almost impossible situation. Protests this week against Beijing’s “zero-Covid” policy in many cities across the country reveal a level of public anger rarely seen since the Tiananmen Square demonstrations in 1989. But loosening China’s Covid controls and potentially unleashing an “exit wave” of infections could kill hundreds of thousands — if not millions — of elderly citizens over the winter.
The damage that this predicament is inflicting on the reputation of China’s authorities and the prestige of Xi Jinping, its president, is real. TV images of maskless crowds watching the World Cup in Qatar are only reinforcing the sense that Beijing has been slow to exit the pandemic, notwithstanding the artful efforts of Chinese censors to edit out crowd scenes from World Cup coverage.
For Xi, who is hailed by state media as the “commander-in-chief of the people’s war against Covid”, the demonstrations represent a personal failure. China’s authoritarian leader, who secured an unprecedented third term as general secretary of the Communist party in October, has often boasted of the “superiority” of China’s system in its epic struggle against Covid.
In late 2020, for example, he extolled China as the “first major economy to have recuperated from the crisis and achieved economic recovery, a testimony to its resilience and vibrancy”. Now though, cases are close to record levels, economic vibrancy has been clobbered by rolling urban lockdowns and a large cohort of insufficiently vaccinated elderly people remain at risk.
To be sure, the scale of the demonstrations in at least 18 cities over the weekend have been relatively modest. Groups of people numbering from just a few to about 1,000 have gathered for candlelit vigils and peaceful protests holding blank pieces of paper, phone lights and calling for an end to lockdowns and frequent mass testing. By contrast, the “pro-democracy” demonstrations of 1989, which were eventually crushed by force, involved more than 1mn people on some days.
On Tuesday, police appeared to have stamped out the protests, at least for now. The National Health Commission reaffirmed Beijing’s commitment to zero-Covid while also pledging to boost vaccination rates among the elderly.
This is urgently needed. According to the latest official statistics, 32 per cent of China’s 267mn people over the age of 60 have not received their third vaccine dose. That figure jumps to 60 per cent for the over-80s. The booster is required to attain high levels of protection against the Omicron variant.
Nevertheless, the quality of China’s homegrown vaccines remains deeply suspect and although a few homegrown mRNA vaccines are undergoing clinical trials, none has yet been approved for domestic use. This leaves China’s elderly population dangerously exposed.
A wise — and increasingly urgent — course of action would therefore be for Beijing to accelerate approvals for proven mRNA vaccines such as those manufactured by Pfizer, Moderna and other foreign groups. Failure to do so will reveal a willingness to put national pride ahead of the health and economic welfare of its population.
The emergency that China faces is not only defined by the lethal risk to many of its elderly citizens. If the latest wave of Covid infections gets out of control, the sheer number of cases will overwhelm an already stretched public health system. If this happens, public anger toward Xi’s regime could escalate still further. Beijing needs to realise that the protesters on the streets are voicing legitimate grievances. It is time for the Chinese Communist party to act on one of its favourite propaganda slogans and “put people first”.