Former adviser to President Barack Obama on China and Taiwan from 2013 to 2017, Ryan Hass is now a foreign policy specialist at the Brookings Institute. This recognized specialist analyzes for L’Express the chaotic 180° turn, which made China go overnight from a strict “zero Covid” policy to the abandonment of all restrictions, without preparation. According to him, while a deadly wave of contamination overwhelms the country, the Chinese regime is paying the consequences of the hyperconcentration of power in the hands of Xi Jinping and the “stubbornness” of the Chinese president. Interview.
The Chinese regime surprised the world with the abrupt abandonment of its “zero Covid” policy, after three years of inflexibility. How do you explain this 180° change, which followed a murderous wave of contamination?
It is not easy to determine the exact reasons that led President Xi Jinping to take this decision. But, from my point of view, it seems that there was a combination of factors. First, President Xi had already cemented his political position for the next five years at the 20th Chinese Communist Party Congress last November and placed loyalists in leadership positions, which gave him a sense of greater security.
Second, economic red flags were flashing in China: it was becoming increasingly clear that the “zero Covid” policy was significantly dampening China’s activity. Third, the wave of contamination was already mounting, and it appeared that even strict sanitary rules could not stop it. In my opinion, it is the combination of these three factors that led the authorities to lift the restrictions, and to bring the country and society through a difficult period, with the aim of trying to move towards a certain normality in the future.
But why, after three years of epidemic, nothing seems to have been prepared? The hospital system is not ready, the country lacks medicines, the elderly are not sufficiently vaccinated…
It’s really hard to understand… The best explanation I can find is that power has been centralized for several years and the direction that senior leaders have consistently projected was to aggressively implement the program” zero Covid”. And so, whether you are a bureaucrat or a technocrat, whether in a megalopolis or a small village, you obey. All the energies of the country are focused on this objective. By doing anything else, you risked being perceived as insufficiently loyal to the central leader and not responding to the very clear political direction that was given.
This question refers to a larger problem: the extreme centralization of power. In a model of collective leadership, which was still a reality in China just over ten years ago, things would have been better anticipated. But with so much power in the hands of Xi Jinping, everything is measured by loyalty to the central leader. It prevented smart people from doing what they should have done to prepare the country for its transition.
Despite Western proposals, Xi Jinping refuses to import foreign messenger RNA vaccines, which are more effective than local vaccines. Can he continue on this path, while the death toll continues to increase?
I would like him not to do it… But I think he will persist in his refusal. He proved to be extraordinarily stubborn and very committed to fueling national pride. Chinese leaders have touted the Chinese model as superior to others in dealing with Covid for the past three years. To adopt Western vaccines would be to question the discourse they have held all this time.
All this will cause deaths that could have been avoided. The sad reality is that the stubbornness of the Chinese leadership has a significant cost in human lives.
The situation in China is currently chaotic. Hospitals are overwhelmed, as are crematoriums. Can a new movement of popular discontent arise, after that of the end of November, which demanded the end of the restrictions?
There is probably a high level of discontent and frustration within Chinese society. The causes are multiple: the impact on people’s lives of the zero Covid policy and now contaminations; but also the economic recession, an unemployment rate close to 20% among young people, or the isolation of the country for such a long period.
I see no signs yet that this discontent could turn into an organized opposition movement against the Communist Party. The regime continues to exercise very firm control over society.
But what will happen if a million or more people die in the country, as suggested by some Western studies?
It will be very difficult to verify the reality of the number of deaths. I expect Chinese leaders to seek to suppress reports of the scale of deaths and infections. People will only be able to become aware of the facts in their families, in their loved ones. They may be looking to speculate on what is happening across the country. But I would be very surprised if the Chinese regime would one day formalize the number of deaths due to Covid.
The members of the new government will be appointed next March, during the annual parliamentary session. Can we imagine a revolt within the party, if the wave of contamination has not died down and the economy remains paralyzed?
It’s very hard to imagine, given what we know about the power structure in China today. On the other hand, it is possible that more pressure will be exerted on President Xi to moderate certain tough positions, in order to give a greater role to the market in the economy and to be more responsive to the public health needs of the population. Chinese citizens. I’m always skeptical when people draw a straight line to describe China’s future, because the history of Chinese politics is a series of zigzags, with constant adaptations. Xi Jinping may have been consecrated as the undisputed leader and have obtained a third term, but he still has to face opposing domestic political forces.
By changing his speech overnight and by managing the health situation so badly, isn’t Xi Jinping terribly undermining his credibility and that of propaganda?
There is already a fairly high degree of skepticism in China about the propaganda. But Xi Jinping’s strategy over the past five years has been to win the support of the masses, to immunize himself against elite discontent. If President Xi constantly travels to very poor areas of China and eats steamed dumplings with people who do not have electricity in their homes, it is to show that he understands the masses and wants improve the quality of life of the Chinese people. It is his shield against the frustration that has built up at the top of society with the reining in of various sectors of the Chinese economy and an anti-corruption campaign that has targeted many members of the elite and their families. Xi will therefore undoubtedly continue to want to appear as a leader of the people.
With the opening of the borders, will many Chinese take the opportunity to leave China?
There has already been some movement, notably of wealthy Chinese to Singapore. But more members of the elite will, in my opinion, go abroad. Apart from Singapore, a very natural place due to a common language and cultural heritage, the elites have always had close ties with the UK, Europe, or the US, often having online focus on the education of their children.
With the current crisis, the moment when the Chinese economy will overtake that of the United States seems to be remote; and the Chinese diagnosis that “the East rises and the West declines” corresponds less than ever to reality…
For a long time, China has benefited from the “aura of the future”. In other words, it anchored the idea that it represented the future of economic growth and the modernity of the world in the 21st century. And that if other countries wanted to benefit from China’s rise, they had to get closer to it or, at the very least, not challenge its fundamental interests. According to this speech, indeed, the dynamic was on the side of China, and the West was declining.
It is more difficult for Chinese leaders to make this point today, given the governance dysfunctions that have emerged in recent months, and the fact that the Chinese economy has lost its luster. According to the Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund, Chinese growth this year will be equal to, or even lower than, global growth for the first time in 40 years. The country is therefore no longer synonymous with linear economic progress without obstacles.
The challenge for Western analysts will be to properly calibrate our understanding of Chinese dynamics. In Washington this year, many who saw China as a fearsomely efficient power now believe it can do no good. One caricature replaced another! The truth lies somewhere in the middle. And it’s going to be important for us to find ways to correctly describe a China that shows its limits, but will remain a competitor for the long term.
Is China still the country that threatens the United States the most?
Some people argue that America’s greatest challenges are internal. Others than climate change or pandemics are more threatening. Still others are concerned about Russia and the risk of a Third World War. But I still think China is the nation-state that poses the biggest challenge to the United States in the world.
Russia’s failure to quickly take over Ukraine is leading China to be more cautious in its ambition to “reclaim” Taiwan, if necessary by force.
We do not yet know what lessons Chinese leaders are drawing from the war in Ukraine. A lot will depend on how the conflict is resolved: if Putin wins in the end and it just takes longer than expected, or if he fails altogether. It is still too early to tell.
The internal situation in China will, in my opinion, be more decisive. Traditionally, when China faces significant domestic challenges, it tries to reduce its external challenges, rather than adding additional problems abroad. I observe that the language used by President Xi in his New Year’s address on Taiwan was more restrained this year than in previous years. We must of course remain vigilant in the face of the threat. But the words used by the Chinese leadership do not indicate an imminent risk of military action to take over Taiwan.
Is China distancing itself from Russia?
She did on some points. Xi Jinping joined other countries at the G20 last November in condemning the use or threat of using nuclear weapons. The Chinese also did not provide military aid to Russia in its war against Ukraine. Neither recognized the separatist provinces or regions of Ukraine annexed by the Kremlin. But I don’t see China really distancing itself. President Xi remains very close to President Putin and provides him with significant symbolic and rhetorical support even today. This is another sign of Xi Jinping’s marked tendency towards stubbornness.