Tag Archives: Xi Jinping

Vaccination Will Not Eradicate China’s Zero Covid Policy

Map showing biweekly confirmed COVID-19 deaths per million people, Jul 23,
2022; Source: Our World in Data

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.

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Xi Jinping’s Visit Heralds More Stability In Hong Kong

China's President Xi Jinping swears in John Lee as Hong Kong chief executive at the Hong Kong Convention Centre on July 1, 2022

HONG kONG IS marking the halfway point of its 50-year one country, two systems governance with a two-day visit by President Xi Jinping to swear in the city’s new chief executive John Lee (seen above) on July 1, also the anniversary of China’s resumption of sovereignty from the United Kingdom.

Xi’s visit has been wrapped in extensive secrecy, security and Covid protections. It is his first visit outside the mainland since the pandemic began.

He reportedly spent the first night back across the border in Shenzhen and all Hong Kong politicians he is meeting went into quarantine ahead of the visit.

Xi made mention of one country, two systems on his arrival but the overarching theme of the visit is a ‘new era of stability’.

That presages further suppression of dissent, even if Hong Kong remains freer than anywhere else in China.

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Xi And Biden May Talk As China-US Relations Stay Tense

ANOTHER CHAT BETWEEN Xi Jinping and US President Joe Biden is reportedly in the offing as the United States mulls easing Trump-era tariffs on Chinese imports of solar panels and household goods like washing machines and bicycles.

Helping to suppress domestic inflation appears to be more of a motivation for easing tariffs than improving China-US relations. If anything, US attitudes towards Beijing are hardening.

There is also a division of opinion within Biden’s economic team over tariff easing. Trade officials argue for the retention of tariffs to give the US leverage in trade discussions.

Tariffs on steel and aluminium will likely stay regardless, and while tariffs make goods more expensive for US consumers, lifting them will not make much of a dent in US inflation. However, Biden will undoubtedly be considering, if he does ease sanctions, what he can extract from Xi in return.

Rising tensions over Taiwan are complicating the issue. A particular point is Chinese officials repeated assertions to US counterparts of late that the Taiwan Strait is not international waters. While that stops short of saying the strait is an internal waterway, it still implies that US warships should not be freely sailing through it as they have been doing around once a month.

Update: Taiwan’s defence ministry said that the PLA Air Force flew 29 warplanes including six H-6 bombers towards the island’s airspace, its third-largest such sortie this year, after Washington rejected Beijing’s suggestions that the Taiwan Strait was not international waters.

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China’s Trade Picks Up As Lockdowns Ease

Daily throughput at Shanghai’s container port returned to 95.3% of normal levels in late May, even as China’s commercial capital remained under its two-month lockdown. That goes part of the way to explaining May’s rise in exports, up 16.9% year-on-year that the General Administration of Customs announced today, a marked improvement on April’s 3.9% growth.

Imports rose by 4.1% year-on-year in May, after being flat in March and April, but still a weak pace reflecting the broader second-quarter slowdown in China’s economy as lockdowns suppressed economic activity.

News that the Biden administration is looking to ‘reconfigure‘ tariffs on Chinese imports into the United States to help reduce inflation will boost Chinese exporters but insufficiently to offset the headwinds of slowing global GDP and trade entirely.

Import growth will also remain modest, even as lockdowns ease and authorities provide further fiscal and monetary stimulus to support the domestic economy.

However, lockdown easing is not the same as lifting. New measures were announced for one Shanghai district today and it looks, nationally, as if the country’s anti-virus infrastructure is continuing to be built out so that mass testing and quarantines can be sustained through 2023.

During his inspection tour of Sichuan, President Xi Jinping called for unwavering adherence to its zero Covid policy while at the same time striking a balance with the needs of the economy. His grouping of economic recovery, pandemic outbreak suppression and maintenance of social stability as co-objectives for officials particularly caught this Bystander’s ear.

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Shanghai Reopening Would Be China’s Most Powerful Stimulus Measure

Shanghai waterfront skyline seen in an archive 2015 photograph

THE EASING OF the lockdown in Shanghai on June 1 may prove the most crucial stimulus measure that authorities take to revive China’s economy and get it anywhere near the official target of 5.5% GDP growth this year.

The more-than-two-month-long lockdown has not been lifted entirely, though there is no staggering of the easing. Most people can move more freely around the city, provided they can show a green health code on their smartphone. Public transport within the city has restarted. Crucially, many businesses are reopening their doors, with in-person customers having to show a negative Covid test within the previous month 72 hours.

However, 10% of the population of 25 million residents in high-risk areas will remain confined at home. Confirmed Covid cases and close contacts still face quarantine or hospitalisation. A localised outbreak risks the reimposition of a neighbourhood lockdown. Residents returning from trips outside the city still need to quarantine. Schooling remains remote, and places of mass entertainment remain shut.

Nonetheless, word reaches this Bystander that the mood in the city is far more one of celebration and relief than the noble forbearing that official media portrays. That, in itself, is likely sending a message to city officials, who have not emerged from the lockdown covered in glory.

Residents have been angry at the strictness of the measures, city officials’ ineptness in enforcing them, leading to, for example, food shortages, and the fact that much of the financial aid has gone to businesses and factories, not to households.

The economic cost has been tremendous. An academic paper published earlier this year gives a sense of the likely scale of the cost — full percentage points of GDP. Shanghai is the country’s biggest and most affluent city and its financial, commercial and international business hub. It accounts for 3.8% of China’s GDP and 10.4% of China’s trade with the rest of the world (2021 data).

It will likely take months for the city’s economy to be operating at anything like normal again, not least because supply chains need to stabilise first.

The manner of the easing of the lockdown allows both President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang to maintain their positions on the need for the zero-Covid policy and the need to reopen an economy facing multiple headwinds, respectively.

Earlier this week, government departments started to flesh out the details of the 33-point stimulus package that Li announced on May 23. The measures are broad-ranging, including tax cuts, business subsidies and loans, and infrastructure investment. As important as staving off a potential recession, the stimulus aims to stabilise employment, the government’s short-term priority.

The measures also included initiatives such as streamlined customs and immigration intended to bolster the confidence of foreign firms manufacturing in China who might be thinking this is a time to look elsewhere.

The critical but beleaguered property sector has had separate support measures, including interest rate cuts.

The economic impact of getting Shanghai back to normal business would mean more to the national economy than all of the above.

Shanghai’s lockdown has been the most disruptive but only one of several in major cities that have provided a stark reminder of China’s willingness to throw the economy into turmoil when political priorities demand it.

As Li has repeatedly warned, the official target of 5.5% GDP growth is undoubtedly out of reach. Much has been speculated about a rift between Xi and Li ahead of the autumn’s Party Congress, the truth of which is probably impossible to know. Sometimes, economic tumult is just economic tumult.

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No Going Back For China On Zero-Covid

Chart showing daily new confirmed COVID-19 cases in China, 7-day rolling average. Source: Our World in Data

EVEN THOUGH NEW Covid-19 infections have peaked, Shanghai city authorities are imposing stricter control measures, an indication of the intensifying political dimension to the zero-Covid policy on which President Xi Jinping yet again pinned his personal colours at the Politburo Standing Committee on May 6.

Shanghai is already under what is now more than a month’s-long lockdown that has seen deaths, caused economic disruption and kindled social unrest amid localised food shortages and disgruntlement about city authorities’ management of the situation.

More mass testing and stricter enforcement of mandatory quarantine for those testing positive or who have co-residents, not just family or close neighbours who test positive are on the way. Residents have reportedly received notices of the imposition of ‘quiet periods’ of three to seven days in which they will not be allowed outside and non-essential deliveries will be halted.

Beijing, too, is extending quarantine measures and making its lockdowns less ‘lite’ in a bid to avoid the capital becoming a second front in ‘the battle for Shanghai’.

As this Bystander has noted before, the top leadership is in a bind. Under- and ineffective vaccination has left it with little option but to persist with trying to achieve zero-Covid. Treating the pandemic as endemic now would likely trigger a wave of deaths that would undermine the narrative of China, unlike the heartless West, putting the lives of its citizens above economic considerations.

Yet the longer it persists with zero-Covid, the less choice it has but to continue it. Politically, Xi cannot make a U-turn, especially with a critical Party Congress coming up in the autumn. The messaging by state media and censorship of social media will negate public criticism of Xi, while local officials will be under pressure to fall into line.

The same may hold less true in elite circles, even if criticism remains muted. Few if any will take the gamble of speaking out loudly against Xi now, cognizant that his power may be far greater after the Party Congress.

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Xi And Biden Seek To Right The Listing Ships

Chinese state media picture of Beijing end of video meeting between President Xi Jinping and his US counterpart, Joe Biden, on November 16, 2021

THE CHUMMY XI-BIDEN video summit on Tuesday morning (Monday evening US time) softens the tone of the China-US relationship but does not much change the substance.

Given the fractious nature of the bilateral relationship of late, that is a significant change and reflects both sides’ wish — and need — not to let it get further out of hand. In that, the video meeting represented a welcome step back from the risk of unwanted ‘hot’ conflict.

Xi likened the relationship to two giant ocean-going ships that needed a steady hand on the tiller to avoid a collision.

However, he also repeated the long-standing demands that Washington treat Beijing as an equal on the world stage, stop impeding its development, stop treating trade as a national security issue and not interfere in China’s internal affairs, notably Taiwan, Hong Kong and Xinjiang.

‘[Xi] highlighted mutual respect, peaceful coexistence and win-win cooperation as three principles in developing China-U.S. relations in the new era’, according to state media.

Sticking to that agenda suggests that Xi thinks China is getting results with it, and that the United States is changing tack, if not necessarily course.

He will need to ensure that perception inside China is sustained in the run-up to next year’s party congress, but also make sure that the narrative of structural US decline that has taken wide hold does not threaten the stable management of the bilateral relationship. That is a necessary backdrop if he is to deal with the other pressing issues confronting China’s development.

The readouts from both sides on Taiwan will be scrutinised for nuance.

The US side said Biden affirmed the ‘One-China policy’ but ‘strongly opposes unilateral efforts to change the status quo or undermine peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.

Xi blamed deteriorating relations across the Straits on ‘repeated attempts by the Taiwan authorities to look for US support for their independence agenda as well as the intention of some Americans to use Taiwan to contain China.’

Xi said China would be patient over reunification but warned that it would be compelled to take ‘resolute measures’, should the ‘separatist forces for “Taiwan independence” provoke us, force our hands or even cross the red line’.

Both leaders were talking as much to their domestic constituencies as to each other, as the human rights issues highlighted by Biden are all those on which Xi will not make concessions.

However, by freezing conflict on them, both leaders can appear principled while easing relations in other areas, notably through cooperation on climate issues and some compromises over trade and investment.

We have already seen some working-level meetings between officials and are likely to see more following the Xi-Biden video meeting.

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Xi And Biden ‘Summit’ Will Herald More Bilateral Dialogue

THE XIE ZHENHUA-JOHN KERRY announcement that China and the United States have agreed to set up a joint working group to advance their intent to co-operate on climate mitigation appears to be a prequel of other ‘dialogues’ between the two countries expected to be announced after President Xi Jinping and his US counterpart, Joe Biden, have their long-awaited video ‘summit’ early next week. 

Their video call is reportedly scheduled for Tuesday morning (Monday evening in Washington). It was brokered last month at a meeting in Zurich between China’s top diplomat, Yang Jiechi and US national security adviser Jake Sullivan. Working-level discussions on the details and agenda have been underway since. 

It will be only the third direct discussion between the two leaders since Biden took office in January and the first since September. However, Biden often speaks publically about meetings with Xi when he was vice-president. In the ordinary course of events, the two men would have been expected to meet in person at the recent G20 leaders meeting and the COP26 climate summit now drawing to a close in Glasgow. 

That it is taking place is an indication that US-China relations, while far from repaired, have at least stopped falling apart, and that, from Beijing’s point of view, the United States has made sufficient effort to ‘correct its errors’ by fulfilling at least some of the demands delivered by Yang in a speech in late January, and in expanded list form at the stormy meeting between top officials from both sides in Alaska in March.

While the Biden administration has moved on some of the specific demands, such as ending the extradition proceedings against Huawei Technology’s chief financial officer, Meng Wanzhou, it has not budged significantly on Beijing’s big-picture demands that:

  • the United States ceases to look at China as an adversary or even as a strategic competitor;
  • Washington restores normal engagement, exchanges, communication and cooperation;
  • the United States does not meddle in China’s internal affairs, i.e., Taiwan, Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Tibet;
  • Washington co-operates with Beijing’s global initiatives on issues such as climate change, post Covid-19 economic recovery and global public health; and 
  • the United States stops politicising trade and regarding it as a matter of national security.

Meeting these would have returned Washington’s position to where it was prior to the Trump administration. That is not going to happen.

ff anything, the Biden administration is continuing its predecessor’s policies towards Beijing, albeit sometimes passively, by just letting processes already in train when it took office run their course. 

His administration is divided internally over how hard it should press China. These divisions cross many fault lines within the president’s Democratic party, not just between human rights and trade and investment issues, but also between human rights and climate mitigation, and defence spending and diplomacy. These are divisions that will not be easily bridged.

Expectations for the outcome of the meeting are accordingly low. Both leaders have domestic concerns that mean they both need to manage the competition between the two countries to avoid undue shocks or surprises but to do so in a way that puts an upbeat spin on the stalemate in so many areas without sounding weak to domestic and global audiences.

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Xi Consolidates His Place In History

President Xi Jinping

LIKE MAO ZEDONG and Deng Xiaoping before him, President Xi Jinping has a historical resolution to consolidate his authority by placing him in the vanguard of the Party’s future history.

According to the communique issued at the culmination of the sixth plenum of the Party’s 19th central committee that had opened in Beijing on Monday, it was resolved that the lesson to draw from the Party’s history was to stay steadfast in 10 areas, with the party leadership being the top priority,

The Party has established Comrade Xi Jinping’s core position on the Party Central Committee and in the Party as a whole and defined the guiding role of Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era. This reflects the common will of the Party, the armed forces, and the Chinese people of all ethnic groups, and is of decisive significance for advancing the cause of the Party and the country in the new era and for driving forward the historic process of national rejuvenation.

The plenum involved 348 full and alternate members of the Party’s 19th Central Committee plus a couple of dozen other senior officials and advisors, in effect the country’s top leadership. It is a critical preparatory meeting for the 20th National Congress, which will be held in the second half of next year and which will appoint the Party’s leaders for the following five years.

Xi is expected to be reappointed then for a third term. The two-term limit on the presidency was abolished in 2018. However, there is likely to be considerable turnover among the other members of the top leadership.

The historical resolution passed at the culmination of the plenum is only the third in a century. It summarises the Party’s 100-year history, documenting its key achievements and future directions in a way that provides a continuous narrative that entrenches Xi’s personal leadership as the defining framework for Chinese politics for as long as he wishes — or is able — to retain power. It also makes Xi all but invulnerble to political attack certainly between now and the 20th National Congress.

The Central Committee called for:

The entire Party, the military, and all Chinese people to rally more closely around the Central Committee with Comrade Xi Jinping at its core, to fully implement Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era, and to champion the great founding spirit of the Party.

The official English text of the communique issued after the plenum, containing a lengthy passage on the text of the resolution but not the full text, can be found via this link.

The Cliff Notes parsing of what the communique says about the resolution is that the direct line from Mao to Xi has been made thicker, and the intermediate stop of Deng has been lightened. That not only puts Xi on a par with Mao when it comes to political authority but gives him the platform to pursue the policies that fall out of his ideology, Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese characteristics for the New Era, which has now been similarly elevated.

The communique also summaries what the top leaders see as their achievements over the past year:

The economy has maintained good momentum, positive advances have been made in building up China’s scientific and technological self-reliance, and further progress has been achieved in reform and opening up. A complete victory has been secured in the fight against poverty as scheduled, the people’s wellbeing has been further improved, social stability has been maintained, steady progress was made in modernizing national defense and the armed forces, and China’s major-country diplomacy has advanced on all fronts. The campaign on studying the Party’s history has produced solid results, and severe natural disasters of multiple categories have been dealt with effectively.

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Biden And Xi Agree To Virtual Meeting That Might Be Called A Summit

WHAT TURNS A video call between two presidents into a summit meeting, beyond the label that gets slapped on it?

We may find out later this year now a ‘virtual bilateral meeting’ between President Xi Jinping and US President Joe Biden has been agreed in principle during a meeting in Switzerland between Yang Jiechi, China’s top diplomat, and US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan.

Biden had pushed for an in-person meeting when he talked to Xi on the phone earlier this year. Xi, who has not travelled outside China since before the Covid-19 pandemic started, demurred.

The virtual compromise appears to reward Biden’s efforts to restore bilateral relations to a less confrontational posture, although he has not strayed far from the tough line on China taken by his predecessor.

However, the US president has softened the tone and made several de-escalatory gestures, most publically dropping an extradition request for Huawei’s chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou.

The Switzerland meeting appears to have been more constructive than one in Alaska in March involving the two officials, Foreign Minister Wang Yi and his US counterpart, Antony Blinken. That quickly degenerated into a shouting match.

This time around, while Yang repeated Beijing’s demand that Washington respects China’s sovereignty, security and development interests and Sullivan raised the US’ standing concerns about Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Taiwan, there was at least discussion, even if conducted in terms diplomats describe as ‘candid’.

That is still far from an improvement in relations. Beijing still holds to its line that it is Washington’s responsibility to get the relationship back on track as it is US policies that have derailed it.

Yet, agreement to a set-piece meeting, albeit virtual, indicates a desire on the part of both leaders for relations not to deteriorate further, which would not serve the interest of either leader as they cope with significant domestic challenges.

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