China’s leader, Xi Jinping, waved at crowds of giddily cheering students. He held meetings with Olympic Games officials, economic policymakers and European leaders. He toured a tropical island.
But there was a revealing gap in Mr. Xi’s busy itinerary last month, exposing the predicament that Covid is creating in a politically crucial year when he hopes to extend his hold on power. He stayed behind the scenes when it came to China’s biggest, most contentious lockdown since the pandemic began.
Throughout April, Mr. Xi gave no public speeches focused on outbreaks in China as its biggest city, Shanghai, shut down to try to stifle infections, and then Beijing went on alert after a burst of cases. Nor did Mr. Xi directly address the 25 million residents of Shanghai who have been ordered to stay at home for weeks, despite their complaints of scarce food, overwhelmed hospitals and confusing zigzags in mass quarantine rules.
“He wants to deliberately keep a certain distance in from Shanghai,” said Deng Yuwen, a former editor of a Communist Party newspaper who now lives in the United States. “No doubt, he’s doing a lot about fighting the pandemic behind the scenes, but of course he does not want to be directly drawn into the mess in Shanghai.”
Mr. Xi’s orders have instead been passed through subordinates or meeting summaries. They have cited his demand to stick to a “dynamic zero Covid” goal: essentially ensuring no cases in a population of 1.4 billion by strict mass testing and isolation of infections or close contacts. On Friday, the Communist Party Politburo — a council of 25 leaders, including Mr. Xi — renewed its commitment to that goal, noting the rising economic risks from Covid and the war in Ukraine.
The outbreaks in Shanghai, Beijing and other cities are testing Mr. Xi’s acumen and authority before an important Communist Party congress late this year. While he is nearly certain to win a groundbreaking third term as party general secretary, Mr. Xi also wants to ensure the leadership is dominated by officials who will defend him and enforce his agenda.
To secure that outcome, Mr. Xi wants to demonstrate serene political mastery, and until lately, the zero-Covid strategy has been a signature achievement: an effective, if expensive, and generally popular vow that China would avoid mass sickness and deaths.
After Communist Party officials initially downplayed the virus in early 2020, Mr. Xi built China into an epidemiological fortress, stifling infections and protecting the economy while the United States suffered nearly one million Covid deaths.
Now there is no easy way out of that fortress. Mr. Xi’s leadership has been so invested in showing that China could handle its own pandemic needs that the government held off from introducing mRNA vaccines developed abroad, which are generally more effective than China’s homegrown vaccines. China’s vaccination of the aged has also lagged.
Without the necessary defenses, the country could face surging cases that, even with Omicron’s lower virulence, officials warn could overwhelm hospitals. But China’s goal of eliminating virtually all cases risks turning into a costly, contentious task with no end in sight, if outbreaks of Omicron keep prompting measures that freeze up whole cities.
“This policy was a demonstration that the government puts the health and the welfare of the Chinese people first,” said Patricia Thornton, a professor at the University of Oxford who studies Chinese politics and society. “That’s becoming a much more difficult story for Xi Jinping to tell.”
The closings and demands for constant checks and vigilance, especially in Shanghai, have ignited public frustration, exhausted local officials and medical workers, and sapped economic momentum.
While residents under China’s past lockdowns have complained about draconian restrictions, this time there are more critics and bolder ones, including economists and business executives, arguing that zero Covid has become untenable in the face of the new variant.
“Covid is not the only illness threatening the lives of the public,” Liang Jianzhang, the co-founder of Trip.com Group, a big Chinese travel corporation, wrote in a recent article in the Chinese Enterprise News. “Sacrificing everything in the pursuit of extreme ‘shock’ measures is not the comprehensive victory that we truly need.”
The unexpected turbulence of 2022, including China’s tortuous positioning over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, is still extremely unlikely to deny Mr. Xi a third term. He is China’s most powerful leader in decades, and the ire in Shanghai shows no signs of escalating into any challenge to his rule. In other cities and towns there continues to be acceptance, if not enthusiasm, for strict controls.
“We were doing nucleic acid tests every day to begin with, so I don’t feel life has changed with the outbreak in Beijing in recent days,” said Zhou Yunhong, a pork butcher in a Beijing fresh food market, who said the daily tests had been taking place since January.
“I’m not worried about the Beijing outbreak,” said Li Kun, an egg vendor in the same market. “This is the capital. How could they leave ordinary folks here hungry?”
But extended economic damage and social tensions from long shutdowns could soften Mr. Xi’s power to corral elite support behind his picks for the next leadership lineup, said Minxin Pei, a professor at Claremont McKenna College in California who studies Chinese politics. Mr. Xi is likely to stay dominant no matter what, but dominance can rise or fall by increments, and the officials around him matter.
“The difference right now with respect to the zero-Covid approach is that the costs are now visible,” Professor Pei said. “You cannot gloss over them.”
Even before the Shanghai crisis, Mr. Xi sounded embattled. Officials have lately suggested that criticizing the Covid policy amounts to disloyalty to Mr. Xi, or called stamping out cases “a political duty that takes precedence over everything.”
“Countless facts tell us that we can win respect and initiative only if we show the spirit of brave fighters defeating our foes face to face on a narrow path, daring to struggle, mastering struggle,” Mr. Xi told the officials at the Party School in early March.
The Latest on China: Key Things to Know
A strict Covid policy. As China grapples with its worst Covid outbreak since the beginning of the pandemic, the government is following a “zero Covid” strategy. The approach could have far-reaching effects and has revived concerns that the country is going back to a planned economy.
The war in Ukraine. China’s officials and its media are increasingly repeating the Kremlin’s narrative about the conflict. This joint propaganda has undercut Western efforts to isolate Russia diplomatically and has found a receptive audience in the Middle East, Africa and Latin America.
A new security deal. The Solomon Islands signed a sweeping security agreement with China that could threaten the stability of the entire Asia-Pacific region. The deal gives Beijing a foothold in an island chain that played a decisive role in World War II and could be used to block vital shipping lanes.
A pause on wealth redistribution. For much of last year, China’s top leader, Xi Jinping, waged a fierce campaign to narrow social inequalities and usher in a new era of “common prosperity.” Now, as the economic outlook is increasingly clouded, the Communist Party is putting its campaign on the back burner.
Last week, Mr. Xi promised to prop up China’s growth with an influx of infrastructure spending, and on Friday the Politburo said the government would stabilize the economy while extinguishing Covid cases.
“Persist with dynamic zero, protecting people’s lives and health to the maximum extent, while reducing the impact of the pandemic on economic and social development to a minimum,” read the Xinhua news agency’s summary of the Politburo meeting.
But an increasingly vocal group of Chinese economists and business leaders argue that damage from shutdowns will be harder to cure. The chronic uncertainty over when it is possible to travel, spend, buy property or invest in business has damaged consumer and company confidence.
The solution, they argue, is to accelerate the rollout of more vaccines and treatments, and to make sure that older people and other vulnerable groups are vaccinated — allowing more flexibility when infections break out.
“The dynamic zero policy that we’re enforcing is increasingly costly, and increasingly ineffective,” Lu Ting, the chief China economist at Nomura Holdings, said in a speech last month that was widely shared on Chinese social media.
“After more and more people understand that the economic costs are too high and unsustainable, change will come more easily,” Mr. Lu said in a telephone interview.
Easing from zero Covid may be politically harder than some critics assume.
Mr. Xi has made China’s relatively few deaths from Covid — nearly 5,000, mostly in the early months of the pandemic — a core of his argument that the Communist Party is more effective at government than any liberal democracy.
But barely more than half of Chinese people 80 and older have had two vaccine shots, and fewer than 20 percent of people in that age group have received a booster, Zeng Yixin, a vice minister of the National Health Commission, said last month.
Depending on the death rate used for calculations, fatalities in China from an unfettered spread of Omicron could be between 100,000 and 840,000, said Yanzhong Huang, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations. Even deaths on a smaller scale could ignite public anger.
“They don’t want to live with the virus, but they have to live with the policies they have,” Mr. Huang said in a telephone interview. “It’s a real dilemma.”
Mr. Xi appears to be wagering that he can beat down the infections in Shanghai and hold China to zero Covid until after the party congress, when some easing may be possible. For now, officials are swaddling Mr. Xi in effusive propaganda.
During a recent visit to Renmin University in Beijing, Chinese state television lingered on the hundreds of cheering students. Before the Guangxi region in southern China announced that Mr. Xi would be one of its delegates to the party congress, it issued reports that villagers there were being given small red books of Mr. Xi’s thoughts — an echo of Mao Zedong’s “little red book.”
“With Xi Jinping at the helm, he will gather together even more of the majestic power of this era,” read the Xinhua state news agency’s report from Guangxi on Mr. Xi’s selection. It did not mention Covid.
Keith Bradshercontributed reporting, and Claire Fu and Liu Yi contributed research.