March 15, 2022 | Policy Brief

Surging COVID-19 Cases Undermine Xi’s Governance Narrative

March 15, 2022 | Policy Brief

Surging COVID-19 Cases Undermine Xi’s Governance Narrative

The number of confirmed COVID-19 cases has skyrocketed in Hong Kong, Shanghai, and a dozen other Chinese provinces in recent weeks, leading to mass lockdowns and record-high hospitalizations. The current crisis will likely weigh heavily on the country’s economic growth and could potentially undermine Chinese President Xi Jinping’s governance narrative in the lead-up to the 20th Party Congress this October.

The number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in China has remained relatively low throughout much of the pandemic, in large part because the Chinese government routinely imposed city- and province-wide lockdowns at the first sign of any mass infection. Chinese authorities also deployed sophisticated and highly intrusive pandemic surveillance tools, including real-time tracking of cellular handsets for contact tracing.

Nevertheless, while nearly 85 percent of Chinese nationals are reportedly vaccinated, China has repeatedly delayed the adoption of highly effective, Western-produced mRNA vaccines. Instead, the Chinese government has relied on two less effective domestic alternatives, Sinovac and Sinopharm. Moreover, in places such as Hong Kong, less than half of residents over age 70 have elected to get vaccinated, often citing concerns about the potential side effects and efficacy of the Chinese vaccines.

For several days in early March, Hong Kong maintained the highest COVID-19 mortality rate in the developed world. In one viral image published by the Hong Kong Free Press and later confirmed by the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Hong Kong, dead COVID-19 victims in body bags lay on the floor of a hospital ward filled with living COVID-19 patients on ventilators.

Record-high COVID-19 cases and mandatory lockdowns were subsequently reported in other parts of China, including in the northeastern city of Changchun, China’s car manufacturing hub, home to 9 million people. Chinese authorities also ordered factory closures in Guangdong province — China’s economic powerhouse and home to China’s Silicon Valley, Shenzhen. In China’s biggest city, Shanghai, authorities temporarily closed some schools, businesses, restaurants, and malls to prevent the spread. Chinese authorities have not ruled out mass lockdowns should the outbreak worsen.

More lockdowns and other extreme COVID-19 mitigation efforts would lead to further declines in China’s industrial output, thereby hastening China’s already rapid economic slowdown. Lockdowns could also worsen China’s record-high unemployment rate, which has remained above 5 percent for several quarters despite the Chinese government’s aggressive attempts to stimulate the economy.

These macro-level pressures complicate the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP’s) efforts to maintain “economic stability,” its priority for 2022, and could put China’s optimistic economic growth target of “around 5.5 percent” even further out of reach.

These and other mounting economic disturbances further threaten to undermine Xi’s stewardship of the country. They also undercut Xi’s domestic credibility as he prepares to assume a once-unthinkable third term as CCP party secretary.

To bolster Xi’s standing, Chinese social media censors will likely increase efforts to suppress any information that portrays Xi or the CCP in a negative light. Chinese propaganda platforms, including China’s state-owned media, are expected to downplay coverage of the outbreaks while simultaneously championing the CCP’s mitigation strategy.

Beijing’s COVID-19 woes could also spill over to the United States, where supply chains are already strained, potentially leading to product shortages and higher prices for U.S. consumers. U.S. policymakers will quickly need to devise appropriate countermeasures to mitigate disruptions without adding to already record-high inflation.

Craig Singleton, a national security expert and former U.S. diplomat, is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where he contributes to FDD’s China Program. For more analysis from Craig and the China Program, please subscribe HERE. Follow Craig on Twitter @CraigMSingleton. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focused on national security and foreign policy.


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