As an unparalleled coronavirus outbreak swept through China in December, President Xi Jinping remained mostly silent on the health crisis in the world’s most populous country.
But during an annual pre-recorded New Years Eve address broadcast by state television on Saturday, China’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong finally made a call for unity while defending his handling of the pandemic.
“Since the outbreak of the epidemic, we have always put people first and life first, adhered to scientific and precise prevention and control, optimised and adjusted prevention and control measures according to the time and situation, and maximised the protection of people’s lives and health,” he said.
Xi added: “After arduous efforts, we have overcome unprecedented difficulties and challenges . . . While it is still a struggle, everyone is working hard with perseverance, and the dawn is ahead. Let’s work harder, persistence means victory, and unity means victory.”
The ruling Chinese Communist party’s attempts to downplay and distract from the worsening health crisis that has followed Xi’s decision to drop almost all Covid restrictions reflect the damage wrought on his credibility at home and abroad, just as he embarks on a third term in power, experts said.
“We can see very clearly that Xi Jinping is badly wounded in the sense that his prestige and authority have suffered tremendously,” said Willy Lam, an expert in Chinese politics at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. “His claim that the Chinese system is the best in the world is now subject to serious questioning.”
Before Saturday’s speech, Xi had not directly addressed the pandemic’s impact over the past three weeks even as infections hit new records and hospitals and crematoria across the country overflowed with the sick, dying and dead.
Instead, as hundreds of millions of people came down with Covid-19, China’s military conducted naval war games with Russia, launched its third-largest air force incursion around Taiwan and flew a fighter jet within metres of a US military aircraft in the South China Sea. On Friday evening, Xi held a virtual meeting with Russian president Vladimir Putin and reaffirmed his support 10 months after Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.
China on Friday reported just one coronavirus fatality for the day before, despite forecasts suggesting this winter’s wave would cause millions of deaths.
The party has been left with the awkward task of releasing obituaries for deceased top cadres too noteworthy to ignore. State propagandists have parroted banal party-speak, projecting bluster and offering little in the way of explanation to suffering citizens.
Lam said that for Xi, who had previously claimed victory over the pandemic, one “particularly detrimental” long-term threat is that the harm is being felt “not only by ordinary people, not only the disadvantaged classes, but even senior cadres, their parents and retired senior cadres”.
Despite heavy controls on public dissent, Chinese censors have struggled to staunch the flood of complaints on social media. Most have focused on the lack of forewarning or preparation for China’s thinly resourced healthcare system ahead of the reopening.
“If [China] opens at the end of the year, then what is the reason for so many cities being closed down for three months this year?” said one social media user. “Why choose to open up in winter when the virus is the most active and the people’s immunity system is weakest?”
John Delury, a China expert at Yonsei University in Seoul, said “at a minimum”, the party leadership faces a “narrative problem” of “how they explain to their public what the hell is going on”.
“Some serious damage is being done to public trust,” he said. “We may not see the immediate effects of that. But it’s going into the public calculus about how competent their government is.”
“This is the worst possible start to Xi’s third term,” he added. “There’s no question that this redounds back to his stature.”
The sudden pivot last month from relentless lockdowns and mass testing followed slowing growth in the world’s second-biggest economy, as well as rising public frustration with officials’ draconian enforcement of the zero-Covid strategy that culminated in rare public protests in cities across the country in late November.
Yun Sun, director of the China Program at the Stimson Center, a US think-tank, argued that the political legacy of China’s zero-Covid policy — including its establishment, longevity and easing — would undermine confidence in Xi’s decision-making.
“The question most contested is the best timing for opening and the preparation the government should have made,” she said. “The core is not whether Xi lost credibility because he changed the zero-Covid policy. Instead, it is: if changing the policy was inevitable, [why] didn’t he do a better job preparing for the consequences?”
Diana Fu, an expert on China’s domestic politics with the Brookings Institution think-tank, said Xi’s U-turn might have come too late to salvage his reputation in the eyes of critical citizens.
“On the one hand, this reversal of policy may be evidence that the Chinese political system under Xi is still adaptive and responds to the cries of its citizens. On the other hand, it also underscores the phenomenal degree of discretionary power that the top leader wields,” she said. “The lives of 1.4bn citizens hinge on what Xi and his coterie of advisers decide about when to shut down and when to open up the country.”
As the chaotic scenes unfolding in China dominated global news broadcasts, the image of competent virus management cultivated by Xi’s administration suffered a heavy blow on the international stage.
Countries including the US, Italy and Japan imposed negative Covid test requirements for air passengers from China amid a dearth of reliable official data from Beijing and rising fears of new mutations of the virus.
Elizabeth Freund Larus, an adjunct fellow at the Pacific Forum, a US foreign policy research institute, said the measures highlighted a “lack of trust” in Xi’s administration.
“US officials believe that the Chinese government has been less than forthcoming about the origins of Covid-19 and less than truthful about the number of positive Covid cases in China,” she said.
“The Chinese government allowed millions of tourists to travel domestically and abroad for lunar new year in 2020 knowing that there was a new coronavirus infecting the population. When the mortality and infection rate became evident . . . it was already out of control in the US.
“Washington is not going to make the same mistake twice.”
Additional reporting by Xinning Liu and Ryan McMorrow in Beijing