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Chinese President Xi fights to save face as Covid-19 weakens his grip on power

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leader of china Xi Jinping told his country he stood on the “right side of history” in a New Year’s address on Saturday, but experts warned the president is starting 2023 diminished by his chaotic Covid U-turn strategy.

It may struggle to deflect blame for the human and economic costs of zero-Covid failure and control the national narrative, even as public signs of dissent are crushed.

Officially, China recorded just over 5,200 Covid deaths, but there is a yawning gap between the image presented by the generally effective communist propaganda apparatus and the reality reflected in social media posts and anecdotes from across the China.

Hospital emergency rooms are overflowing with desperate patients. Medical supplies are running out, with pharmacies selling drugs ranging from antivirals to basic painkillers. Police patrolled a Beijing crematorium where Reuters reported long queues for hearings last week.

In his first public comments to the Chinese people on Covid since his government changed course three weeks ago, Xi used his speech on Saturday to assert that the government and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) had “moved the people first and put life first from the start”. .

For many in China, this phrase will ring hollow, especially those fighting for medical care for New relatives stricken by the disease.

Questions about why the country has clung to zero-Covid for so long, at such high cost, and done so little to prepare for opening up are likely to undermine Xi, even if the damage done to his authority is not visible beyond the walls of secrecy made up of leadership.

“The fact that the CCP’s posture towards the pandemic has now been completely reversed after a popular uprising can only spoil Xi Jinping’s carefully cultivated air of infallibility,” said Orville Schell, director of the Center on US-American Relations. Chinese at the Asia Society in New York. .

“Xi is virtually immune to public expressions of criticism in China,” he added. “But my Chinese friends are all shaking their heads in disbelief at the contrary nature of Xi’s policies.”

Coronavirus patients in the lobby of Chongqing No. 5 People's Hospital in the southwest Chinese city of Chongqing.
Coronavirus patients in the hall of Chongqing No. 5 People’s Hospital in southwest China’s Chongqing city. Photography: Noel Celis/AFP/Getty Images

Foreign analysts, scouring the Internet and official statements for clues, estimate that there are already thousands of deaths a day, with more to come.

A first wave in urban areas is expected to peak in January, but a larger second wave will pass through rural areas – where health systems are even weaker – in February and peak in early March, according to the UK Health Analytics Society. Airfinity.

There may also be an economic cost to letting Covid run free. Some analysts have said they expect a small exodus of elites, alongside renewed efforts to get money out of the country. This could increase pressure on a rapidly decelerating economy.

Xi has previously tied his personal prestige to draconian Covid-zero policies, vowing to stick to tough restrictions as he cemented his personal authority and demanded a third term in office at a key communist party summit in october.

But in November, the country was turned upside down by the mass public demonstrations against controls. Thousands of people have defied stiff penalties for political activity in a surveillance state to join the most widespread protests China has seen in decades.

In their wake, Beijing abruptly changed course, dropping controls almost overnight. Since then, the spiral of deaths has caused alarm beyond China, particularly over fears that large numbers of new cases could create the conditions for a dangerous new variant to emerge.

The World Health Organization has He urged Beijing for more transparencyrequesting more data on genetic sequencing, hospitalizations, admissions and deaths in the intensive care unit and on vaccinations issued and vaccination status.

Britain last week joined other countries, including the United States, Japan and Italy, in requiring negative Covid tests for passengers from China.

Authorities cited the lack of reliable data from China, though many experts criticized the checks as knee-jerk responses aimed more at placating public opinion than protecting public health.

“Abandoning the zero-Covid policy de facto without preparation is now a political mission of the Communist Party and therefore of the Chinese government,” said Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute in London. “This being the case, the statistics will have to be ‘patriotic’ and must toe the official line.”

The official position can arouse as much skepticism at home as abroad. But Xi is unlikely to be challenged, after he weeded out potential challengers and packed the party summit with allies at the October meeting.

“There are differing opinions within the government, including on the best time for opening and the best preparation the government could have made. But they are effectively silenced,” said Yun Sun, director of the China program at the Washington-based think tank Stimson Center.

In a sign that his authority remains absolute even amid his government’s struggles to contain the pandemic, Xi chaired a two-day meeting last week in which every member of the politburo was forced to publicly self-examine their shortcomings. over the past year.

Xi also looked to a centuries-old tradition in China’s leadership, which predates communist rule, blaming problems on failures in local government implementation, rather than central government policy.

Xi’s call for more central leadership “seems to assign the blame for inertia to local governments and generally does not follow Beijing’s guidelines,” said Wen-Ti Sung, a senior lecturer at the China Center in the world from the Australian National University.

For years, the government defended the costs of the zero Covid policy on the grounds that it saved Chinese lives. They could point for validation to the terrible suffering in countries like the UK where the pandemic raged out of control, and argue convincingly that Beijing was doing a better job than most other governments.

This helped temper popular anger in the early days of the pandemic, when Wuhan was overwhelmed, many people died and China launched the global lockdown experiment.

“People would like to believe the propaganda narrative, but when they see real things happening in their own circles, especially relatives and family members, they will have less faith in the Chinese government,” Alfred said. Wu, associate professor at the National University of China. Singapore.

“Because people can see family members suffer and die, the government cannot use propaganda to distract.”

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