Chinese Covid controls the risk of a crisis for the country and its leader Xi Jinping.

As of Thursday, at least 44 Chinese cities are under full or partial lockdown as authorities scramble to curb the spread of the highly contagious Omicron variant, according to a report by investment bank Nomura and CNN’s own report as of Thursday.

“We need to overcome paralysis in the face of risk, war weariness, relying on chance and relaxing,” state media reported on Wednesday, as Xi said calling on the nation to “strictly adhere to standardized prevention and control measures.”

In China, local officials implementing Covid-19 measures, like in Shanghai, are routinely accused of mismanagement when problems arise — a more acceptable target than the central government and its policies in the country’s tightly controlled political environment. And the Covid crisis is not expected to jeopardize Xi’s likely third term.

But as the outbreak enters a critical phase – some cities have already been put on lockdown for weeks and a top national health official warned on Tuesday that the outbreak in Shanghai “has not been effectively contained” – China’s ruling Communist Party and its leader will have to deal with the economic fallout and the growing possibility that, like the virus, the anti-government anger seen in Shanghai could spread.

Nation destroyed

Xi ordered local authorities to do everything possible to stop the spread of the virus, as well as to minimize the “impact on economic and social development.” a sign of several cases, or even preemptively, after the Shanghai crisis.

“Shanghai officials tried to refill this needle they were asked to refill, which is ‘let’s keep Covid zero without disrupting anyone’s life.’ They focused a little more on “not disturbing people’s lives” (side). And they failed,” said Trey McArver, partner and co-founder of Chinese research group Trivium.

“The lesson that everyone will learn is that you really need to focus on part zero of Covid,” he said.

Dozens of cities have already imposed some form of lockdown, although the vast majority of cases since the beginning of last month have been in Shanghai and northeastern Jilin province. Getting goods around the country has become a major problem, with some expressways closed and truck drivers trapped in quarantine or at thousands of roadblocks. Some cities discourage their residents from leaving, such as the major southern port of Guangzhou, which requires its 18 million people to test negative for Covid if they want to get out.

“Basically, you could say that the whole country is now like a large number of isolated islands,” said Yanzhong Huang, Senior Fellow for Global Health at the Council on Foreign Relations.

The situation prompted various ministries in Beijing to act, with a National Development and Reform Commission official promising on Tuesday to “actively coordinate with local governments” and “use big data” to ensure the delivery of essential supplies.

Meanwhile, health officials and state media stepped up public messaging about why China should pursue the policy, citing the risks of a wide-ranging outbreak in the country of 1.4 billion, especially for its large and under-vaccinated elderly population.

These health concerns are accompanied by a “hidden” political calculation of the costs of a large-scale outbreak, Huang said.

“(Beijing) is considering the supposed impact on political and socio-economic stability, considering the impact on a leadership change ahead of the party congress, and considering the legitimacy of the regime – there is a lot at stake,” Huang said.

But the risks for the Communist Party of continuing a policy that has fueled growing frustration and anger in Shanghai and threatens further upheaval are also clear, especially as the country is more than 88% vaccinated and most cases, authorities say, remain. light.

“The economic downturn is a major concern,” said Alfred Wu, associate professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore.

“The central government always uses so-called economic indicators to increase its legitimacy. So how are they going to (explain) the sluggish economic performance? I don’t know. But one thing is certain: people will suffer.”

Blame game

Since Xi’s name is so closely associated with politics, the leader has associated himself with their success.

“When you put power so clearly in the hands of one person, then I think you can plausibly put any problems on his feet — so it obviously reflects badly on him,” Macarver said.

Workers in personal protective equipment hand over daily supplies of food and essentials to local residents during the Covid-19 quarantine in Shanghai.

But as to whether it would jeopardize the leader’s third term, “the answer is no,” he said, pointing to what observers of China’s opaque elite politics widely see as a lack of any real competition for the top role.

Meanwhile, it’s possible that even from the depths of the current problem – if they can find a way to bring the outbreaks under control – the central government can achieve a political victory similar to what they did in Wuhan in 2020, analysts say. to tell.

Then there was considerable anger against the government, such as after the death of whistleblower Dr. Li Wenliang, but the Chinese Communist Party emerged from the crisis to portray its strict control strategy as an example of its excellent governance.

This time around, there was clear frustration with the government spilling onto social media this week as users took a pro-Chinese stance, using hashtags en masse to make veiled or sarcastic comments against the government before being censored.

But there are also ready-made scapegoats across the country in the form of local officials who are under enormous pressure and who can be blamed for failures in the implementation of the zero-Covid policy, shifting the blame from the policy of the central government itself, experts say. Many cadres have been fired or demoted throughout the pandemic, including recently in Shanghai, details of which are usually reported by state media.

“China’s central government is very, very careful, and also very smart, in turning its anger on local governments and not on itself,” Wu said.

And in a political environment where any dissent is suppressed, the Xi party narrative will dominate.

However, some argue that China has backed itself into a corner where it now needs to maintain its strict policies after enjoying two years of Covid-0 success, while at the same time scaring the virus and generating widespread support for the policy.

Huang puts it this way: “We should never underestimate the government’s ability to rethink its position in order to maintain public support. And we should never underestimate people’s tolerance, even for policies that harm their interests.”

The Beijing Bureau of CNN contributed to this report.

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