Xi Jinping Faces Rare Dissenting Voices Over China's Zero-COVID Policy

The Chinese leadership is facing its most unpredictable challenge in recent memory as the country's zero-COVID policy strains society and threatens to undermine its all-important economic growth.

Two years of success in containing the virus meant that, unlike in the West, living without the coronavirus had been the norm for the Chinese public until the arrival of Omicron. Beijing has met the highly transmissible variant with a brute force that's testing the limits of the delicate social contract between China's authoritarian government and its people.

Even after a recent surge in cases, China's reported death toll of around 5,000 is still dwarfed by mortality data from Europe and North America.

In the United States, nearly a million have died from COVID, making China's comparatively low mortality figures a particular point of pride for its leader, Xi Jinping. Xi has tied the achievement to his own political legacy during a year in which he expects to be granted an unprecedented third term as leader of the state, the military and the Chinese Communist Party.

Xi Jinping's Zero-COVID Policy Challenges Economic Growth
A health worker stands in front of a COVID-19 testing site in Beijing on May 3, 2022. China has doubled down on its zero-COVID policy, even as government officials and top economists are wary of its impact on the country’s economy. Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

But 2022 was meant to be marked by a sharp economic recovery as major industries spun up to pre-pandemic levels to accommodate increased supply chain demands from a world emerging from the virus.

Instead, the Chinese government has spent the past weeks silencing gloomy forecasts from some of the country's top economists, who are watching as market activity plummets and investors become jittery as a result of an unpredictable environment steered entirely by China's zero-tolerance approach to COVID.

They included Hong Hao, a Hong Kong-based Chinese investment strategist, whose widely followed social media accounts on Weibo and WeChat were suspended for apparently challenging Beijing's public health policy, which has brought Shanghai—the world's busiest shipping port and home to 25 million people—to a complete standstill for more than five weeks.

In late March, Hong tweeted footage of the city's empty streets, writing: "Shanghai: zero movement, zero GDP."

He had a top post at Bank of Communications International Holdings, a securities firm under one of China's largest state banks, but a change in his Twitter profile this week suggests he's since left the job. A company spokesperson told The Wall Street Journal that Hong had "resigned for personal reasons."

Hong was the fourth Chinese economist to give up, or be forced to give up, posting on their social media account in recent weeks.

China's annual GDP growth target for the year is 5.5 percent. The International Monetary Fund cut its prediction to 4.4 percent in April and on Tuesday credit agency Fitch Ratings slashed its own forecast by five points to 4.3 percent, citing the government's COVID policy, which technically aims for something called "social zero COVID," or no infections outside of those already in quarantine.

However, just as Shanghai's costly lockdown appears to have tamped down the Omicron outbreak, the virus has spread to Beijing. Daily cases remain in double digits but officials don't want the city of 21 million to have a similar experience to Shanghai. Fears nonetheless abound, triggered not by the government's rhetoric, but by its actions.

Like in Shanghai, large makeshift hospitals that serve as centralized quarantine facilities are being erected in the Chinese capital. Residents are undergoing their second week of mass testing while Beijing's subway is partially shut in COVID hotspots. People were panic-buying and there were efforts to replenish supermarket shelves to allay anxieties about food shortages if deliveries into the city are halted.

After hundreds of thousands of infections in Shanghai since March, the eastern port city reported around 350 deaths. If the trajectory of Beijing's outbreak looks anything like Shanghai's, many might feel a pursuit of zero COVID won't justify the economic costs that are sure to follow, despite lingering concerns about the low vaccination rate among China's elderly and the efficacy of the shot itself.

On Tuesday, an unnamed Chinese government adviser told the Financial Times that Xi was struggling to come to terms with the fact that Omicron might burst the dam that is his previously successful zero-COVID policy.

"People are telling Xi the lockdowns are a concern but I don't think they're saying how big a concern it really is," the adviser said. "He's just so proud of China's accomplishments fighting [COVID] that I don't think he worries about the economy."

"I don't think Omicron is going to be contained but this is what the big leader said, so people are making decisions based on this assumption," said the adviser.

Dissenting views aren't welcome at times of high political sensitivity, even from the likes of Zhong Nanshan, perhaps China's most revered public health specialist, who rose to prominence during the country's SARS outbreak in 2003.

In a co-authored article in National Science Review published last month, Zhong acknowledged the effectiveness of the zero-COVID approach, but argued: "However, China needs to reopen so as to normalize socio-economic development and adapt to global reopening."

"Prolonged dynamic zeroing cannot be pursued in the long run," he said, recommending a gradual reopening coupled with an mRNA vaccine booster campaign. Translations of the article which appeared in Chinese-language media were later deleted.

Joerg Wuttke, president of the EU Chamber of Commerce in China, told Swiss news site The Market in an interview published on April 28 that Omicron clusters were "like a game of whack-a-mole for China."

In meetings with government officials, his warnings about an inevitable economic slump fell on deaf ears.

"I meet very well-informed and open-minded top politicians. They know what [zero COVID] means for the economy," he said. "It's just that they can't use this knowledge to bring about policy change at the moment."

"Until the 20th Party Congress, which will take place later this year, they will stick to the [zero-COVID] policy. President Xi wants to be confirmed for a third term, so he cannot change his narrative this close to the finish line," Wuttke said.