Xi’s first reaction to anti-Covid protests flippant or reflective?

There seems to be an intense buzz in China over President Xi Jinping appearing unfluttered by the havoc his stringent Zero-Covid policy caused to the people who were forced to stay indoors for months together without adequate nutrition or medication.

In his public address on the occasion of the new year, the President defended his Covid policy, describing it rational and well-thought-out. “Following a science-based and targeted approach, we have adapted our Covid response in light of the evolving situation to protect the life and health of the people to the greatest extent possible. Officials and the general public, particularly medical professionals and community workers, have bravely stuck to their posts through it all. With extraordinary efforts, we have prevailed over unprecedented difficulties and challenges, and it has not been an easy journey for anyone.”

He refused to take cognition of the people’s suffering, their growing anger in the last few weeks and how that forced his government to withdraw the policy. In fact, he did not refer to the fact that owing to the government’s unpreparedness, the sudden cancellation of the Zero-Covid policy led to an unprecedented surge in infections in China. His comments were rhetorical and at best, patronizing: “We have now entered a new phase of Covid response where tough challenges remain. Everyone is holding on with great fortitude, and the light of hope is right in front of us. Let’s make an extra effort to pull through, as perseverance and solidarity mean victory.”

What is worse, President Xi did not refer to Covid even once in his address. It was as if the virus or the resultant pandemic simply does not exist in China. There were no Covid-related deaths or atrocities either. “Today’s China is a country that keeps to its national character. In the course of 2022, we encountered various natural disasters including earthquakes, floods, droughts and wildfires, and experienced some workplace accidents. Amid those disconcerting and heartbreaking scenes, there have emerged numerous touching stories of people sticking together in face of adversity or even sacrificing their lives to help others in distress.”

The president recalled his tour of some Chinese provinces immediately after the 20th Party Congress where he was bestowed with the third term of power. However, the visit to Yan’an was not to study the impact of Covid or the Covid policy but to “relive the inspiring episode in which the Party’s central leadership overcame extraordinary difficulties in the 1930s and 1940s, and to draw on the spiritual strength of the older generation of CPC members”. He paid his respects to the sacrifices of the communist party than the Chinese people: “I often say, ‘Just as polishing makes jade finer, adversity makes one stronger’. Over the past 100 years, the CPC has braved wind and rain, and forged ahead against all odds. That is a most difficult yet great journey.”

It is not entirely correct to conclude from his speech that he had not bothered about the people’s anger against his Covid policy. It was always at the back of his mind, even if he refused to be drawn into acknowledging it. Towards the middle of his national address, he talked about the importance of building “consensus through communication and consultation”. Understandably, there was never any consultation when he suddenly enforced the Covid policy last year locking millions in their homes. He made a passing reference to the challenge he faced when deciding how to tackle the growing people’s anger. “When the 1.4 billion Chinese work with one heart and one mind, and stand in unity with a strong will, no task will be impossible and no difficulty insurmountable.” That in the very next sentence he talked about Taiwan shows his political ingenuity at side-stepping serious domestic challenges. This is what he said next: “The people on both sides of the Taiwan Strait are members of one and the same family. I sincerely hope that our compatriots on both sides of the Strait will work together with a unity of purpose to jointly foster lasting prosperity of the Chinese nation.”

The president even had a word for the youth who were at the vanguard of the people’s protests. “A nation will prosper only when its young people thrive. For China to develop further, our young people must step forward and take on their responsibilities.” The communist government’s reaction to this round of protests was uncharacteristically peaceful. Instead of a ham-handed by an insensitive and undemocratic government that opened military fire at its own youth at Tiananmen Square all those years ago, the government this time quietly withdrew the questionable virus policy rather than confront the people. Is there a lesson in this for the Chinese government, Sinologists would ponder in the new year.


China, Covid, Xi Jinping