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How Beijing Accidentally Ended the Zero COVID Policy

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How Beijing Accidentally Ended the Zero COVID Policy

China’s central government aimed to modify the zero COVID policy incrementally following the 20th Party Congress. What went wrong?

How Beijing Accidentally Ended the Zero COVID Policy

Residents line up for COVID test at a booth in Shanghai on Friday, Dec. 16, 2022.

Credit: AP Photo/Andrew Braun

In December 2022, China finally ended its draconian zero COVID policy. Following the sudden opening, the number of positive cases and deaths skyrocketed. The reasoning behind this change has been baffling scholars. Not long ago, the official media praised the zero COVID policy as “most economical and most effective.” Perhaps more surprising was that there seemed to be little preparation for the opening. Soon after the opening, hospitals faced overcrowding, and medicines were sold out.

The zero COVID policy certainly demonstrated the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s mobilization capability. Thus, one may ask: If the CCP can mobilize its cadres to enforce lockdowns and mass COVID-testing for almost three years, why can’t it facilitate a smoother transition out of zero COVID?

The answer lies in the characteristics of a mobilization campaign, which encourages two behaviors among local governments. First, mobilization is a path-dependent process. The central government directs local governments to concentrate on one political goal. Fearing the punishment that would come with failing to meet that goal, local governments double down on extreme policy implementation to demonstrate their diligence and satisfy upper-level evaluators.

Second, mobilization encourages local governments to speculate about the central government’s policy priorities, because the campaign reflects the top leader’s most pressing concern. Cadres fear being caught on the wrong side of the political winds and not reacting to the leader’s intention quickly enough. Thus, they gather all signals that might reflect the top leader’s policy preference.

As a result, moderating a mobilization campaign is extremely difficult. The central government must simultaneously signify a change of the top leader’s specific preference without jeopardizing the overall correctness of mobilization itself. Therefore, local officials tend to play it safe and follow the dependent path when faced with conflicting or confusing signals.

For example, Mao’s original goal during the 1959 Lushan Conference was to deradicalize the Great Leap Forward. However, Peng Dehuai’s criticism of the Great Leap Forward, which Mao viewed as a personal attack, led to a party-wide purge against Peng’s “anti-party clique” and “right-leaning cadres.” Following the conflicted signals, local cadres followed a “better safe than sorry” mentality and doubled down on radical economic policies.

However, if the central government sends a clear signal that breaks the path dependency, local governments might view it as the end of mobilization. Returning to the example of the Great Leap Forward, the 7,000 Cadre Conference and the subsequent Xilou Meeting in 1962 exposed leadership splits and the marginalization of Mao in day-to-day policymaking. Mao’s withdrawal to the “second line” and the rise of moderate leaders, such as Liu Shaoqi, Deng Xiaoping, and Chen Yun, convinced local leaders that the Great Leap Forward had ended.

According to an insider with China’s health system, Beijing aimed to modify the zero COVID policy incrementally following the 20th Party Congress. The goal was to take step-by-step measures to return to normal at a minimal cost. The first sign of loosening up the zero COVID policy appeared in November. On November 11, 2022, the central government published “20 Points on Improving COVID Control,” which aims to tune down excessive lockdown measures. However, the 20 Points brought confusion to local officials because it contradicted the strong defense of zero COVID policies in the 20th Party Congress.

The 20th Party Congress Report declared that China would “continue dynamic zero COVID without hesitation.” The Party Congress also promoted Li Qiang, the enforcer of Shanghai’s draconian lockdown, to the Politburo Standing Committee and the presumed next premier. As a result, most local  governments followed a “better safe than sorry” mentality and doubled down on lockdown measures.

There was one exception. On November 13, Shijiazhuang decided to end mandatory COVID-19 tests and restrictions on visiting public spaces. According to Shijiazhuang’s party secretary, the decision was based on “following the 20 Points strictly.” However, due to rapidly rising COVID-19 cases, Shijiazhuang reinstalled strict lockdown measures, including city-wide mandatory COVID-19 tests, on November 20.

Following Shijiazhuang’s failed experiment, local governments continued strict lockdown measures. However, the Urumqi apartment fire on November 24 and subsequent nationwide anti-lockdown protests shocked local governments. Facing angry crowds chanting slogans opposing zero COVID, frontline social workers opened locked-down communities, which allowed people to gather on the street. At the same time, local officials did not receive clear signals from Beijing on handling the situation in the first several days of the protest. As a result, many local governments conceded to protesters’ demands to cool down the heated situation. For example, facing protesters trying to storm the government building, Party Secretary of Urumqi Yang Fasen promised to end the lockdown for low-risk communities and hold conversations with resident representatives the next day at noon. These concessions forced local officials to adjust their lockdown policies.

Without clear signals from Beijing, local governments across China implemented conflicted policies based on their interpretation of the central policy.  On December 1, Guangzhou ended the city-wide lockdown and mandatory mass COVID-19 tests. Following Guangzhou’s lead, Tianjin and Beijing soon ended lockdown measures as well. However, other cities, such as Hefei and Jinzhou, continued to double down on strict lockdown measures. Jinzhou’s government even declared that “it would be a pity if we can achieve zero COVID but decide not to.”

In other places, local governments declared an end to lockdowns but in practice continued lockdown measures. For example, the Urumqi government claimed to end the lockdown following the fire and protest. However, residents complained that the local government still enforced other regulations to keep people at home.

Facing conflicted implementation among jurisdictions, Beijing sent additional signals to clarify the confusion. On December 7, the State Council released the “New Ten Points,” new guidelines for China’s COVID-19 policy. The central government’s original intention was to return to the “precision COVID containment” model of late 2020 and 2021 rather than ending the zero COVID policy altogether. The New Ten Points aimed to crack down on extreme lockdowns, which had sparked the massive anti-zero COVID protests across China, by highlighting “scientific” and “precise” implementation. The State Council spokesperson declared that the policy shift does not mean China will “completely open up”; instead, the policy would change incrementally by “taking small steps.”

However, local officials did not implement the New Ten Points and opted to open up completely. The New Ten Points required local officials to draw high-risk areas based on buildings and households, but local officials stopped drawing high-risk areas altogether. It also required home quarantine for COVID-19 patients; however, local governments did not enforce this rule. As a result, people who tested positive can still travel to public places. Some local governments even required officials to work despite testing positive and suffering fevers and other symptoms.

The rushed opening-up did not come from Beijing; it resulted from local governments interpreting central government signals and getting ahead of Beijing regarding policy implementation.

In interviews with local Chinese cadres in different regions, all of them identified the New Ten Points as the watershed; it represents a “changing wind” from Beijing. However, none of them view it as Beijing’s sole authoritative voice. The New Ten Points is categorized as a circular (通知). In the hierarchy of Communist Party documents, a circular is not binding; it only provides reference information to local governments. Local governments can decide how to utilize and implement it. Thus, they read it between the lines and combined it with other signals to decipher what they believed was Beijing’s true intention.

One official pointed to nationally recognized expert Zhong Nanshan saying 99 percent of COVID-19 patients will recover in 7 to 10 days as a primary signal. Another cadre identified the end of mandatory mass COVID-19 testing and health code requirements as strong indications. Cadres also identified the New Ten Points as Beijing’s affirmation to Guangzhou and other “early movers,” which prompted them to follow with their own opening-up measures.

In other words, local officials interpreted these signals as Beijing’s intention to end the zero COVID policy quickly rather than moving in small steps. Therefore, they rushed to re-open, fearing they might get left behind. One front-line social worker said their local leader told everyone that “zero COVID has ended” and “everyone should return to their original duties” following the release of the New Ten Points.

Facing the sudden opening at the local level, Beijing realized that “the horse has already left the barn”; all it could do was accept the reality. On December 26, the State Council issued a new circular that codified opening at the local level. The circular deleted requirements for drawing high-risk areas and quarantine enforcement. It also reaffirmed the end of mandatory mass COVID-19 testing. Overall, Beijing adopted and legitimized local governments’ quick opening rather than trying to reassert control over localities and enforce incremental opening.

Beijing’s COVID-19 policy adjustments since November highlight the difficulty of controlling a mobilization campaign. Local governments have their own agency and tend to speculate about the central government’s policy preferences based on signals from Beijing. China’s failed attempt to tune down the mobilization shows that the central government cannot finetune the direction of a mobilization campaign like a water tap. Weak and confusing signals led to confusion among cadres and conflicted policy implementation in different localities. However, when Beijing sent a strong signal for change, local officials interpreted the new signal as a change of political wind and rushed to end zero COVID measures.