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Not quite zero

The efficacy of President Xi Jinping’s zero-Covid strategy has once again come into sharp focus, with the country recording its first deaths from novel coronavirus since May, while also recording increased numbers of cases.

Statesman News Service | New Delhi |

The efficacy of President Xi Jinping’s zero-Covid strategy has once again come into sharp focus, with the country recording its first deaths from novel coronavirus since May, while also recording increased numbers of cases. This week, Beijing has shut down parks and museums and many Chinese cities have resumed mass testing. The capital has seen a huge surge of cases, as have Guangzhou and Chongqing. On Monday, the country reported 28,127 cases, which was close to the peak reached last April.

Mr. Xi’s zero-Covid approach has in recent times seen severe clampdowns on movement and has provoked, even in a controlled state like China, strong reactions from citizens. These included frequent altercations between the sequestered citizenry and those tasked with enforcing the restrictions, and a spirited attempt to target Mr. Xi directly through sharp messages of protest that surfaced in Beijing on the eve of the Communist Party congress in October.

Perhaps, because the authorities realize there are limits to the tolerance of people, instructions were issued earlier this month to have targeted clampdowns, rather than the mass lockdowns that have so frustrated citizens, while crippling economic activity.

Indeed, the 20 adjustments to Covid protocols announced by authorities had given rise to hope that the easing up had begun. But even so, as the events of this week show, the restrictions are stifling. Beijing, for instance, which saw a 40 per cent jump in cases from Sunday to Monday, has tightened rules for arrivals from other cities in China, stipulating they must undergo three days of Covid testing before they can leave their accommodation.

The city of Wuhan, which first reported the virus in 2019, has ordered citizens to travel only between home and work. This would suggest that the “adjustments”, such as they are, might be cosmetic, and those restrictions will continue to impact both daily life and the economy.

The economic impacts of the zero-Covid policy have been quantified by some analysts, and their conclusions must worry China. Nomura analysts estimated this week that localities accounting for nearly 20 per cent of the country’s GDP were under some form of lockdowns or curbs, up from 15.6 per cent a week earlier.

Many businesses have expressed fears they might not survive for very long, and investors are clearly worried. Of greater concern are fears that a reopening might not be allowed until March when the reshuffle of the country’s top leadership is completed.

And with power structures in flux, local officials, analysts fear, would be reluctant to take the first steps to ease up restrictions. With the rest of Asia having for the most part opened its doors, the country that gave Covid to the world appears to have been hit worst by it in economic terms. Clearly, the zero-Covid strategy has failed, but who is to tell Mr. Xi that?