PRESIDENT XI JINPING is far from the first world leader to have a well-publicised exemplary vaccination against Covid-19.
Yet, the remarks by Zeng Yixin, deputy head of the National Health Commission, that the top leadership have all been vaccinated with domestically produced Covid vaccines is notable on several counts.
First, information connected to senior officials’ health is customarily tightly held.
Secondly, Xi’s doubling down on ‘zero-Covid’ is China’s signature response to the pandemic in contrast to most of the world’s acceptance of endemic Covid, trusting a vaccinated population will keep severe infection and mortalities at low rates. Attempting to eradicate Covid through the zero-Covid policy carries high costs, socially from the mass testing, strict quarantine rules and local lockdowns, and economically from the disruption to commerce and manufacturing lockdowns cause.
China’s Covid mortality rate is minuscule compared to other countries, but, until recently, so were its vaccination rates, especially among the vulnerable elderly. These are now officially up to 90% (share of the population that has been double jabbed). However, Sinovac, China’s inactivated-virus vaccine, does not reach the same level of effectiveness as the mRNA vaccines used in the West until three doses, which may explain the timing of Zeng’s announcement about Xi. China’s mRNA vaccine, ArCoV, is in trials.
However, it will reinforce speculation in the West that Beijing is preparing to drop its zero-Covid policy. That seems unlikely if only because Xi’s endorsement has made the policy a political imperative rather than an issue of public health.
The Party has also been using low Covid mortality and case rates as evidence that China’s political system is superior to liberal democracy, a key pillar of its argument for its legitimacy. It would take near-universal vaccination with an mRNA vaccine to reduce mortality and severe infection to sustain that narrative in place of zero Covid.
That is many, many months off. Cai Qi, the Beijing Party Secretary, recently said his city would uphold zero Covid for the next five years.
Arguing that vaccination levels and treatment capabilities have reached a level at which it was no longer necessary to eliminate the virus through zero Covid would also be challenging. The Party’s propagandists would need to find a uniquely Chinese spin on a policy widely adopted by other countries.
Minimising the economic damage of zero Covid is gaining policy attention, especially as headwinds increasingly batter the economy. Dynamic zero-Covid means eradicating new local outbreaks by removing infected cases to isolation centres. Lockdowns are becoming more targeted and quarantine periods shorter. The capital, for example, has managed to avoid the lengthy citywide lockdown that afflicted Shanghai from late March to early June.
However, zero-Covid will remain in place for at least the rest of this year, well into next, and, potentially, well beyond.