Change May Be Coming in China

Following nationwide protests, the Chinese government is undertaking a partial rollback of the zero-COVID policy, but the people there are far from free.

People holding white roses and white pieces of paper to protest China's zero-Covid restrictions in Hong Kong on November 28.
People protesting China's zero-Covid restrictions in Hong Kong on November 28. (Anthony Kwan / Getty)

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China is signaling that its three-year battle against COVID-19 is entering a “new stage.” What that looks like will have huge political and economic consequences.

But first, here are three new stories from The Atlantic.


Playing at the Margins

Could China finally be moving on from its contentious zero-COVID policy? That’s what the government appears to be signaling. The shift would be long overdue, but also fraught with as many political, economic, and social challenges as keeping it in place.

Zero COVID—China’s mandate to suppress infections to or near zero—has dominated national policy since the pandemic’s initial outbreak in the city of Wuhan three years ago. Though rife with abuses and excesses, the strategy has probably prevented deaths on the scale witnessed in the United States and many other countries, especially when vaccines were unavailable. But as the years have dragged on, the approach—large-scale quarantines, business closures, and repetitive testing—has become untenable. The constant disruptions have frustrated the public, isolated the country, and weighed down the economy, which the International Monetary Fund expects to grow a mere 3.2 percent this year—seriously sluggish by Chinese standards. Yet President Xi Jinping has insisted zero COVID is best for China and has refused to budge.

The tension boiled over this past weekend when protests against COVID controls erupted in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, and other major cities across the country. They were tipped off by a fire in a residential building in Urumqi, the capital of the Xinjiang region, which left 10 dead. Many Chinese believe COVID restrictions hampered the rescue effort.

The government responded as it always does to unrest: Police swarmed the streets of Beijing to suppress further outbursts. But officials have also suggested a shift is in the works. Vice Premier Sun Chunlan, who has been a zero-COVID enforcer, declared on Wednesday that “as the omicron variant becomes less pathogenic … our fight against the pandemic is at a new stage and it comes with new tasks.” The Global Times, a Communist Party–run news outlet, joined in to make the case that COVID had become less dangerous. Such comments represent a departure from the usual messaging that COVID is a killer and that without strict controls, the virus will lead to deaths on an unacceptable scale. Hints of this change were percolating even before the protests. In mid-November, the top leadership announced that it was “optimizing” the COVID strategy by stripping away some of its more excessive strictures.

What exactly this new phase will look like is not at all clear. The steps taken so far to ease the policy have been tweaks to the tough system of lockdowns, such as some reductions in quarantine periods. Earlier this week, Beijing authorities said they will not bar the entryways of locked-down buildings—a practice that should have been banned long ago as an affront to both safety and human dignity. More easing is sure to come. Cities have begun dialing back COVID-testing requirements, which had become an onerous burden on their finances and their citizens’ patience. China’s leaders seem to be aiming for some sort of halfway state in which they maintain many aspects of zero COVID in a more moderate form, hoping to simultaneously prevent an uncontrolled outbreak and appease public anger.

That may not work. As long as the government continues to rely on detentions and shutdowns to fight COVID, the stagnant economy probably won’t be revived, and the people won’t be assuaged. Any easing will almost certainly result in a higher case count and thus greater deaths (made more likely by the government’s poor record of vaccinating the elderly). That’s something the Communist Party seems to fear as a threat to its reputation and rule, and raises the possibility that policy makers would backtrack and reimpose stifling COVID controls.

Political pitfalls abound as well. State propagandists have credited Xi personally for guiding the zero-COVID effort, and thus lifting it could appear as an admission of failure or error—unpalatable for a leadership that paints itself as infallible. More important, the Chinese regime and its supporters have marketed the success of zero COVID in containing the virus as evidence that China’s authoritarian political system is superior to other forms of governance, especially liberal democracy. Just in September, Xinhua, the state news agency, lectured that “some governments were either indifferent to rising tallies, sluggish in action or impatient to press on with prudent, restrictive protocols” and so “they are now hastily turning the page when the pandemic is nowhere near the end.” If zero COVID breaks down, so will the narrative of autocracy’s superiority.

China’s current COVID predicament is typical of Xi Jinping’s policy making. His penchant for extreme, often ideological positions; state action; and stubbornness in the face of changing circumstances are at the root of not just the COVID problem but also China’s larger economic woes and widening conflicts with most of the world’s great powers, including the U.S. Recently, Xi has shown some signs of softening beyond COVID: He agreed to restore dialogue with Washington on climate change, which he had cut off in August, apparently realizing his hostility to the U.S. had gone too far. Yet, as with COVID, such changes have been at the margins, not the core, of his policies. To get China back on track, he’ll have to display a degree of flexibility and pragmatism that has so far been absent. Until then, the country will remain tied up in knots of his making.

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Today’s News
  1. The latest jobs report shows that employers hired 263,000 people in November, a slight drop from October. The unemployment rate held steady, and wages rose more than expected.
  2. The EU set a price ceiling of $60 a barrel on oil sold by Russia.
  3. President Joe Biden announced that he is prepared to meet with President Vladimir Putin if Putin shows an interest in ending the war with Ukraine. The Kremlin dismissed the idea.

Dispatches

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Evening Read
A colorful illustration showing an open envelope surrounded by tongue and sparkle emojis
(The Atlantic)

Party Invites for Hot People

By Kaitlyn Tiffany

The holiday season is here, and with it the age-old question: What is the best way to invite people to my party?

Facebook invitations are no longer tenable. People don’t use Facebook anymore, which means they might not see your event unless you expressly tell them to go look for it there—horrible. For a big party, I like to send an email. For a small party, why not just make a calendar event and add your nearest and dearest to it without even asking? And for something really wild, I don’t see what’s wrong with making a flyer and putting it on your Instagram or texting it to everyone you know … But all of the existing options have their failings. Emails can go to spam; flyers can be seen by random, undesired people; paper invites are ridiculous and attention-seeking, like owning a typewriter.

Read the full article.

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Jessica Henwick, Daniel Craig, and Janelle Monáe in Glass Onion. (John Wilson / Netflix)

Read. Now Is Not the Time to Panic, Kevin Wilson’s fourth novel, avoids the trap of the trauma plot.

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Watch. In theaters, She Said is a #MeToo movie devoid of sensationalism. And Glass Onion, the sequel to Knives Out, understands the absurdity of extreme wealth.

On TV, catch up on The White Lotus ahead of next week’s finale. And the Netflix film The Wonder explores self-annihilation through the story of a girl who fasts for months.

Listen. On his debut solo album, Indigo, the South Korean rapper RM, of BTS, finds meaning within the noise of stardom.

On Radio Atlantic, Katherine Wu talks about what to expect from the third winter of the pandemic.

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Isabel Fattal contributed to this newsletter.