Chinese President Xi Jinping is staking his political future on the success of an unusually strict zero-COVID policy, experts say, as he comes up for an unprecedented third-term reappointment this year to the Communist Party's top job.
China is pursuing a zero-COVID policy while the United States and countries from Europe to Asia are lifting or easing restrictions and living with the coronavirus.
"Why does Beijing stick with this approach?" wrote Neil Thomas, China analyst with the Eurasia Group, a political risk consultancy. The World Health Organization has called zero-COVID unsustainable.
"The most important reason is that Xi has invested significant political capital in zero-COVID, which is portrayed as a shining example of how the Communist Party delivers good governance to the Chinese people," Thomas wrote.
Shanghai, China's largest city at 26 million and a major commercial hub, has been locked down for weeks to stop the spread but recently announced plans to gradually reopen.
Analysts say Xi believes the zero-COVID policy will best cap the death toll in a country with relatively weak medical care, including vaccines, compared with many Western countries. Since the start of the pandemic, China's COVID-19 death rate, at 2.34%, is nearly twice the world's 1.2% average of infections that lead to death, according to Worldometer data.
"As to which policy is better after all, is it zero COVID or not zero COVID, it's the same as a lot of public policies, (meaning) there will always be a lot of debate," said Huang Kwei-bo, associate professor of diplomacy at National Chengchi University in Taipei. "But whether it's good or not we can only turn our heads later and look back."
China acknowledges the risk of more deaths from infections.
"I have seen reports that, based on new modeling by scientists in China and the U.S., China risks over 1.5 million COVID deaths if it drops its tough dynamic zero-COVID policy," said Liu Pengyu, spokesman for the Chinese embassy in Washington, D.C. "In this case, we must adhere to dynamic zero-COVID policy," he told VOA.
Xi's political future
Xi, general secretary of China's only major political party, was elected as a delegate to the 20th Party Congress in late April, a run-up to his possible reappointment to the top job. The congress is scheduled for the second half of 2022, state-run Xinhua News Agency reports.
The 68-year-old leader has been party chair and Chinese president – positions that normally go together – for about a decade. If the party gives him a third term, he would stay in power until at least 2027.
The Shanghai government's response to surging COVID-19 cases since April has generated "condemnation from citizens" over "empty store shelves, a lack of access to health services" and rules that "separate infected children from their parents," wrote Amy Gadsden, associate vice provost for global initiatives at the University of Pennsylvania.
Chinese Premier Li Keqiang warned this month that China's job market is "complicated and severe" if China sticks to zero COVID. His comment may be a veiled criticism of Xi's pandemic response, Huang said.
Lockdowns in Shanghai, following the same in China's tech center Shenzhen, have sent world supply chains into a tailspin due to labor shortages in shipping, logistics and factory work.
But so far, most Chinese policymakers support zero COVID, at least tacitly, analysts observe.
"From what we can see from the outside, he doesn't seem to be in very much danger of not getting a third term," said Denny Roy, senior fellow at the East-West Center think tank in Hawaii. "COVID is a problem and zero-COVID policy is prolonging it, but I don't think the COVID problem is necessarily fatal for Xi. It's not clear that a large part of the senior party leadership would favor doing anything much different."
The leader's policies outside the pandemic have broad party support, Roy said.
Zero COVID success or failure?
The Chinese president will spend the rest of 2022 doing everything possible to prove that zero COVID works, experts say. Officials have already avoided severe lockdowns in Beijing despite rising caseloads there, a possible lesson from Shanghai.
"China is not a democracy and dissent is not tolerated, but public opinion nevertheless matters," Gadsen wrote. "Xi is in a tough spot as the spread of the omicron variant strains efforts to maintain the zero-COVID policy."
Zero COVID runs the risk of failure if even one infected person gets out of line, said Wu Chia-yi, associate professor in the National Taiwan University College of Medicine's nursing faculty.
"If the zero-COVID policy is taken really very strictly and if people really don't go outside and don't get infected, then of course it (wouldn't spread), but there would still be cracks," Wu said.
Without the policy, China could see as many as 100 million confirmed coronavirus infections, Huang said, citing estimates from Asian media reports. He said that figure would "scare people to death" and could lead to more extensive economic losses.