The A4 Movement: Mapping its Background and Impact
Patricia M. Thornton
Wednesday, March 1, 2023
Although not the primary cause that prompted the sudden reversal of Xi Jinping’s signature “zero-COVID” policy, the protests that swept twenty-one provinces and over two hundred college and university campuses in late November no doubt played a role in the timing of the decision. Yet, neither the excessive zeal with which the coronavirus prevention measures were applied at the local level nor the resulting rise in social discontent were surprising or unpredictable. Both were the result of an increasingly autocratic system that demands absolute adherence to an increasingly infeasible task and places downward pressures on the social grassroots. The “blank page” protests brought together three disparate groups – the urban working class, suffering economic deprivation caused by the rolling lockdowns; the middle-class urbanites and university students, suffering from “lockdown fatigue”; and an exploding solidarity movement of overseas Chinese students and members of the next-generation Chinese diaspora, who provided support via social media. Predictably, public security officials attempted to defuse, dissipate, and contain these groups, and propaganda organs appeared poised to declare the end of “zero-COVID” as a public relations victory. The ongoing search for nefarious “foreign forces,” allegedly behind the protests, highlights the inability of China’s repressive apparatus to recognize the fact that the unorganized interests behind the protests were unlikely to have been driven by a larger anti-state agenda.
The Sudden End of Zero-Covid: An Investigation
Wednesday, March 1, 2023
China’s sudden exit from zero-Covid in early December surprised many observers. The most powerful motivations for this decision were the prohibitive costs to the economy inflicted by zero-Covid, the growing evidence of its ineffectiveness in face of a more infectious Covid variant, and the greatly diminished political incentive for maintaining zero-Covid after the 20th Party Congress. The party’s poor preparations for the exit were mainly due to the leadership’s overriding desire to stage a successful party congress. The politicization of the pandemic response continued even after the sudden end of zero-Covid as the official propaganda apparatus sought to reshape the narrative and the government refused to approve more advanced Western vaccines and to include an imported Pfizer anti-viral treatment in its health insurance program. The decisive end of zero-Covid and the subsequent pivot to the economy nevertheless reveal the party’s pragmatist side.
The Covid–19 Pandemic and China’s Economic Slowdown
Alicia Garcia Herrero
Thursday, September 1, 2022
The Chinese economy has been undergoing a structural slowdown during the past decade, due to aging, decelerating productivity, and lower returns on assets. The Covid-19 pandemic, coupled with China’s dynamic Zero-Covid policies, have worsened that trend, together with two other important factors, namely the demise of China’s real estate sector as well as the much more difficult external environment stemming from growing U.S.-China strategic rivalry and the war in Ukraine. China’s Covid experience started well but it is ending poorly. With much better economic performance in 2020 compared to the rest of the world, China managed to attract large amounts of capital while keeping its borders closed. However, doubling down on the Zero-Covid strategy with a much more contagious virus, while the rest of the world was opening, changed China’s fortunes for the worse. In fact, China is bound to grow barely half of what the government promised for 2022 (5.5 percent). Moving forward, as the Chinese government starts to show some signs of opening-up, the question remains whether a strong recovery should be expected. The answer is “no.” The factors behind China’s structural deceleration are still intact. In addition, Covid-related scarring effects are bound to hurt the Chinese economy in terms of human capital and innovation. Finally, the 20th Party Congress has made it crystal clear that the role of the state – and the party – in the economy is bound to increase. All in all, even if the Covid restrictions are lifted, China might see a temporary recovery but the structural deceleration will still lead to growth at around 2 percent by 2030. This implies that any convergence with the U.S. economy will not continue for long.
The Myth of Authoritarian Superiority: China’s Response to Covid-19 Revisited
Tuesday, June 1, 2021
Is China’s authoritarian system superior to a liberal democracy in terms of crisis management? This question is addressed by looking at China’s pandemic response since December 2019. In due course, an authoritarian state can come forth with a robust ability to mobilize resources and bureaucratic capacity for high-priority action. However, the downside of China’s authoritarian model is equally glaring. Although the cover-up and inaction contributed to emergence of the crisis, China’s initial mishandling suggests that an authoritarian state is highly susceptible to any disruptions or shocks. To some extent, the policy blunders in late January 2020 intensified the crisis facing the Chinese leadership. The zero-infections policy introduced after April 2020 encourages an at-all-costs and by-all-means approach that is currently experiencing diminishing returns and hindering China’s mass vaccination efforts. Overall, the analysis does not support China’s authoritarian model as a viable alternative to liberal democracy.
Chinese Crisis Decision Making: Managing the COVID-19 Pandemic
Part Two: The International Dimension
Michael D. Swaine
Tuesday, September 1, 2020
The international aspects of the Chinese leadership’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic cover a broad spectrum of activities, both positive and negative. On the positive side, Beijing has provided valuable assistance to nations and international organizations struggling with the virus and engaged in an intensive diplomatic effort to present itself as a strong supporter of the global response. On the negative side, the Chinese leadership has resorted to ham-handed efforts to compel other countries to praise China’s role and at times acted irresponsibly in responding to foreign criticism of its own behavior. In the process, it has argued that its system of rule is extremely adept at handling major crises and by implication superior to the American system. The Chinese leadership has also engaged with Washington in a petty “blame game” over the pandemic that has damaged the reputation of both nations. Beijing’s mixed record suggests that it must do more to show that it is genuinely committed to overcoming the pandemic through greater transparency, cooperation, and consultation.
China’s Public Health Response to the COVID-19 Outbreak
Monday, June 1, 2020
This essay focuses on the pattern of China’s public health response to the COVID-19 outbreak. While the government response suggests that important progress has been made in strengthening disease surveillance and response capacities in the post-SARS era, it also reveals a pattern of cover-up and inaction similar to what occurred during the SARS outbreak. This time, however, local government leaders and health authorities appear to have played a more prominent role in the making of the crisis. Once central leaders recognized the severity of the crisis, they—like their counterparts during the SARS crisis—did not hesitate to turn to draconian measures to contain the outbreak. However, compared to the reverse course during the SARS crisis, the COVID-19 containment measures were carried out more aggressively and extensively, aided by high-tech means. The speed and scale of the containment efforts and the government’s ability to rein in the spread of the virus show the presence of a highly resilient and powerful state. Still, the tremendous social-economic costs incurred by strict disease control measures and the inability to completely break the transmission chain highlight the limits of the state reach. The essay concludes with a discussion on the replicability of the Chinese approach.
How Has the Coronavirus Crisis Affected Xi’s Power: A Preliminary Assessment
Monday, June 1, 2020
The December 2019 coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan and the subsequent spread of the pandemic throughout the country and the world is the worst political crisis Chinese leader Xi Jinping has faced in his seven years in power. The party-state’s poor initial response, whether due to the cover-up by local officials or Xi’s own inadequate attention or poor judgment, not only reveals some of the well-known systemic flaws in the Chinese state but also exposes Xi to criticisms of questionable leadership. Yet, despite its initial missteps, the party-state managed to contain the viral outbreak quickly, largely due to its formidable capacity to mobilize the resources at its disposal. While sustaining real, albeit limited, damage to his authority for now, Xi is likely to experience greater difficulties in confronting the medium-to-long–term economic and geopolitical consequences of the pandemic.
Chinese Crisis Decision Making -- Managing the COVID-19 Pandemic
Part One: The Domestic Component
Michael D. Swaine
Monday, June 1, 2020
Available open sources indicate that in their domestic handling of the COVID-19 virus, the central Chinese authorities generally followed, ultimately to good effect, established crisis management processes and procedures as well as post-SARS regulations for dealing with a health emergency. A major exception to this record occurred with regard to the initial reporting on the virus by both local and central authorities, where the pre-existing network reporting system was not utilized early enough and both local and initial central expert teams sent to Wuhan failed to detect the seriousness of the outbreak. Once the top leadership clearly recognized the gravity of the situation, it moved with at times ruthless efficiency to combat the virus. Although Xi Jinping and other senior officials subsequently acknowledged that mistakes were made, the center only punished local officials, in an apparent attempt to deflect blame from the top, as was also the case during the SARS epidemic. Available open sources provide no clear proof that the more extreme charge of a deliberate cover-up of a known deadly and highly contagious outbreak is accurate. However, they do indicate that the Chinese system remains excessively bureaucratic and consensus-driven, often prizing political criteria over expert-based information and reflexively suppressing unauthorized communications.