Xi Jinping’s unrepentant faith in continuing the zero-COVID national strategy is breeding public unrest throughout the People’s Republic of China. Demonstrations have broken out in at least eight mainland cities as well as Hong Kong since Friday. The government has eased some of the controls and policies in light of the demonstrations, but this is still clearly a carrot and stick situation. Right behind the easing of select controls comes the decision by at least twelve universities in Beijing and the Guangdong Province to send their students home and conduct final exams remotely. Dispersing students back to their hometowns cuts down on the prospect of further demonstrations, thus serving to help defuse the situation. The police presence in Beijing and other urban areas has been reinforced and made more visible.
China’s zero-COVID strategy was never intended to last forever. Yet between almost continuous COVID outbreaks and Xi’s stubborn refusal to bend, it seems like forever to millions of Chinese citizens. The deaths of 10 people in an apartment fire in the city of Urumqi on Thursday has been the catalyst for this round of anti-zero-COVID protests and demonstrations. Almost instinctively, many citizens questioned whether COVID restrictions contributed to the deaths. Urumqi had been under zero-COVID lockdown since August.
What happens next remains uncertain. If the unrest continues and grows, the central government will be forced to implement more censorship restrictions. This will serve as the precursor to a heavy-handed crackdown. On the other hand, if the unrest dies out by later this week most of China’s cities will return to a zero-COVID normalcy. One way or another, zero-COVID has to be overhauled or discarded entirely. The damage it causes to China and its economy increases with every passing day. The sooner Xi realizes this, the better. Unfortunately, it does not appear that China’s leader will come to the realization anytime soon.