[The Fountain] How to help Xi save face with Covid-19

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[The Fountain] How to help Xi save face with Covid-19

The author is the head of the China Institute of the JoongAng Ilbo and CEO of China Lab.

The biggest agenda in the 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC) in October was the securing of the third consecutive term for President Xi Jinping. But what attracted the world’s attention was the forced exit of former President Hu Jintao from the congregation on the last day.

No one knows what really happened at the time. But in the Chinese world, it was considered a “mianzi assassination” on Hu. Mianzi means “face-saving,” which Chinese people consider to be more valuable than life. Since Hu lost face, he could be just as good as dead for the rest of his life.

Marred by Covid-19 as the end of the year approaches, China is busy saving Xi’s face, who has “personally commanded and arranged” the zero-Covid policy so far. The move is aimed at telling the rest of the world that the policy change was not affected by the “blank sheet protests.”

Beijing’s logic is, “We have grown stronger as the virus has weakened.” China claims that the Omicron variant is less aggressive while the hygiene of the Chinese has improved. Really?

China even changed the definition of deaths from Covid-19 to reduce the death toll. Another theory helps explain the sudden shift from the stringent zero-Covid policy. Li Qiang — who is likely to be the next premier of China, the second most powerful man after Xi — supposedly persuaded Xi to lift the draconian restrictions. Li gave two reasons.

First, China must avoid becoming a laughingstock of the world. According to Li, the World Health Organization (WHO) is likely to declare Covid-19 a common infectious disease in 2023. If China continues to treat Covid-19 as a severe epidemic and keeps the lockdown, China would be isolated and mocked by the rest of the world.

Second, China must revive its ailing economy as red lights are blinking everywhere. The financial condition of each local government seriously worsened due to the long-term lockdown. As Beijing is printing money to get over the financial crisis, Li has to tackle such financial challenges as prime minister next spring. China claims that Xi changed his mind because of such reasons, not because he surrendered to the blank sheet rallies.

Behind such reasoning is Beijing’s conviction that Xi does not make policy errors. He cannot lose face no matter what. In fact, China has never officially announced it will end the zero-Covid policy. That means China can return to the policy at any time if the need arises. The ghost of a “full lockdown” is still floating over China to seek any chances to return.
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