After nationwide protests, China is giving up its rigid zero-Covid policy. But that does not mean turning away from repression and coercive measures. Europe must find a pragmatic way of dealing with Beijing without abandoning its liberal values.
China in 2022: Xi Jinping, the most powerful president since Mao Zedong. A high-tech security apparatus that tracks down troublemakers before they can even unroll posters. A society that has no choice but to accept the Communist Party’s (KP) claim to power, to submit to it, or to flee abroad. This woodcut-like description of the state of affairs dominated the image of China until October.
At the party congress, head of state and party leader Xi Jinping had just celebrated his power. Premier Li Keqiang, who refused cadaver obedience, was pushed into retirement. Xi’s predecessor, Hu Jintao, steered party officials out of the hall in front of live TV cameras. It seemed like a deliberate humiliation of his predecessor, whom Xi had heavily criticized. Meanwhile, six impeccable Party soldiers, the new members of the Politburo Standing Committee, strode onto the stage.
The warning to the elite and the populace is that those who complain are gone: in front of the party congress, the police rushed out when a lone demonstrator put up a protest poster on the Sitong Bridge in Beijing and insulted Xi Jinping. The censors deleted Internet search results for keywords such as “bridge” and “Beijing” to make it more difficult to distribute cellphone videos of the incident. What shouldn’t be will be erased.
However, the image of a dictatorship that can lock down cities with millions of inhabitants because it illuminates every corner of society and suppresses criticism has faltered in the past two weeks. Citizen protests against the zero-Covid strategy spilled over from one city to another. Even more disturbing from the point of view of the state leadership: the resentment was not only directed against closed housing developments, supply bottlenecks and the arbitrariness of the local plague hunters; here and there there were calls for freedom of speech and an end to the party dictatorship.
Even autocrats who never have to face an open election cannot afford to make every mistake. This is evidenced by the extent of the most recent protests, the largest since the student march on Tiananmen Square in 1989. If the state leadership had given up its vaccination nationalism in the last two years and protected the people with effective mRNA vaccines from foreign manufacturers, some would have had a hard lockdown can be avoided – and with it the suffering of countless Chinese people. But Beijing had it in mind to develop its own vaccines. These are still a long time coming.
If the top epidemic fighters suddenly realize that the omicron variants cause less severe disease progression and that a relaxation of the Covid measures can therefore be justified, this is no coincidence. Beijing clearly saw the need to defuse the situation and placate the population, which had been worn down by harsh restrictions.
The difference to 1989
However, one should not be blinded by these surprising concessions. Beijing will primarily learn one lesson from the ugly cell phone videos of demonstrations in Shanghai and Beijing: The security apparatus must continue to be perfected in such a way that resentment can never again manifest itself before the eyes of the world public.
Especially not towards Xi Jinping, whom propaganda hailed as the wise man steering the country through the pandemic. Who saved millions of Chinese from dying from Covid, while in the west the bodies were piling up in ice rinks. Reduced to two numbers: According to their own statements, there were fewer than 6,000 deaths in China, a billion dollar country, and over a million in class enemy America.
However, with the initially successful and widely accepted zero-Covid strategy, Xi has maneuvered himself into a dead end. Beijing is now looking for a face-saving way out with easing steps – and will unsettle large parts of the population with an abrupt change of course and probably a sharp increase in the number of infections.
The trials and tribulations of the Covid policy and even possible further mass protests are unlikely to pose a threat to the dictator Xi. Because in contrast to 1989, when the KP leadership was split over the question of whether the student march should be violently suppressed, there are currently no signs of internal factional fighting. Xi Jinping took precautions in good time. The son of a once disgraced top politician has ruthlessly eliminated his own adversaries in recent years.
Disintegration of the Soviet Union as a warning
As little as Xi has to fear chanting against the Covid policy, he is plagued by the primal fear of the Communist Party losing its monopoly on power. After his appointment as head of the Communist Party ten years ago, Xi lamented that Mikhail Gorbachev’s reform and opening-up policies heralded the end of the Soviet Union. December 1991, when the Soviet Union ceased to exist, is Xi’s “never again moment”; a capital failure by Moscow that must never be repeated in the Far East.
Xi personally instructed the nomenklatura to watch a film co-produced by the party’s Disciplinary Commission on the decline of the Soviet Union. The propaganda piece contains a statement by Vladimir Putin from 2005: Even then, the Russian ruler was lamenting that the collapse of the Soviet empire was the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the century.
In his speeches and writings, Xi, who reveres Karl Marx as the most brilliant thinker in human history, warns against ideological aberrations and the influence of a hostile West. He also paints on the wall the danger of a “color revolution” instigated by anti-Chinese forces. Xi is alluding to popular movements that, like those in Ukraine and Tunisia, are defined by a common color or flower and are striving to overthrow the ruling elite. It is not surprising that the Chinese state press saw foreign powers at work in recent weeks when the harassed citizens gave up on the coercive measures.
Autocrats see ideology and repression not as a problem – but as a solution. The party cadres will therefore demand even more ideological rigor, the censors will scour the Internet even more thoroughly in future, and the neighborhood committees will deploy even more spies. And a CP-controlled judiciary will make an example of ringleaders at rallies.
wishful thinking in the West
Under Jiang Zemin, the head of state and party leader of the 1990s who was buried on Tuesday, the belief in the West that China would also open up politically as part of economic reforms survived. Today you have to admit: That was pure wishful thinking. “Change through trade” didn’t work. From today’s perspective, China’s glorification as an economic miracle also seems naïve. The national economy of the People’s Republic does not work like a perpetual motion machine that yields wealth and high profits in a timely and effortless manner.
The world’s second largest economy is in a structural crisis. It follows an outdated growth model that relies largely on public investment. The relaxation of the zero-Covid policy will improve the economic outlook, but will not eliminate the structural problems. The rigid dogmatism embodied by Xi Jinping and a deep distrust of reforms, foreign investors and free-market principles stand in the way. This leaves China vulnerable at its Achilles heel, economic development.
A stuttering economic engine, the smoldering real estate crisis and the Covid fiasco are fuel for new protests. But no other country in the world has such a sophisticated surveillance machine to keep the people in check. Domestic difficulties increase the danger that Xi wants to show strength in foreign policy, be it in the South China Sea or towards Taiwan. Xi regards the “bringing home” of the de facto independent island republic as a historic mission.
What does this mean for European countries that are economically heavily dependent on the Middle Kingdom? It takes sobriety when dealing with this ideologically entrenched but sometimes unpredictable regime. In concrete terms, this means reducing dependency on Chinese supply chains, pushing for reciprocity in market access and investments, and demanding compliance with elementary human rights.
This sobriety must not result in decoupling or even comprehensive containment policies. Because China remains – as long as it refrains from invading Taiwan – an indispensable partner, economically and politically. It is therefore important to find a pragmatic way of dealing with the authoritarian giant empire. Western democracies hope that liberal ideas will spread through openness. Despite everything, we shouldn’t give that up.