Very few have access to what goes on inside the core of Chinese political decision-making, so everything that happens is often unpredictable.
When at the beginning of December many were preparing for a new massive confinement in Beijing, in the style of the one experienced in Shanghai for more than two months in the spring, just the opposite happened.
Just as China decided from one day to the next on January 23, 2020 to seal the city of Wuhan before the astonished gaze of the rest of the planet, on December 7 the communist government suddenly ended the ironclad anti-pandemic policy that had governed the lives of its citizens for nearly three years.
Voices inside and outside the country consider that things could have been done better, with a greater collection of medical resources, an accelerated immunization campaign among the most vulnerable people —only 42.3% of those over 80 years of age have the booster dose― and a gradual strategy, in which perhaps it would have been convenient to wait for winter and the Chinese New Year to pass, a festive period that begins on January 22 and represents the largest migratory movement on the planet, with millions of urbanites returning to their lands. of origin, where the sanitary means tend to be more exiguous.
But it remains to be seen if the turnaround and the consequent
wave of departure
will take its toll on the country's president, Xi Jinping, crowned in October for a third term as general secretary at the XX Communist Party Congress, and very well accompanied at the top of the power by a cast of politicians from his faction.
For Willy Lam, a professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, the abrupt change shows that the Xi Administration "does not care about the enormous loss of human life."
Willy cites studies that predict the deaths of more than a million people, "mostly the elderly," in the coming months.
The health consultancy Airfinity estimates that 1.7 million will die by April 2023.
This analyst concedes that there is "enormous public opinion" in favor of lifting the restrictions, especially among young people, "fed up with three years of extreme blockade policies."
But he believes that it was a wrong decision: "Xi Jinping should have chosen a better occasion, after the winter and after proper preparations."
In his opinion, the change in direction was influenced by Xi's concentration of power, unprecedented since Mao Zedong, and the economic suffocation after a 2022 plagued with disruptions: GDP growth is expected to be around 3%, far from 5, 5% that Beijing had proposed.
“The Party leadership was very anxious because of the bad economic figures”, according to Willy.
Now they hope that activity in the factories will revive and this will allow young people to find work.
In 2022, youth unemployment has reached historical records, close to 20%.
But the decision, he concludes, "not even party officials were consulted, much less public opinion."
"The prestige and authority of the Party and Xi have been badly damaged."
Few knew how to anticipate the change of course.
Just nine days before the end of the zero-covid policy, for example, the US diplomatic mission in China alerted its citizens that authorities were expanding restrictions, which could include “residential quarantines, mass testing, lockdowns, interruptions of the transportation, confinements and possible separation of families”;
encouraged them to keep a 14-day supply of medicine, bottled water, and food.
The capital, with 22 million inhabitants, had just felt the blow of social protests of a political magnitude unknown in the Xi era;
a revolt against the restrictions in which the fall of the president was even claimed.
There were other sparks shortly before, but without the political depth: among the migrant workers (coming from other provinces) confined in Guangzhou, one of the country's industrial vectors, and among the employees of the largest iPhone factory on the planet, in Zhengzhou, affected by closures.
Also in the remote province of Xinjiang, after the death at the end of November of a dozen people in a building fire, which many citizens attributed to excessive zeal of sanitary measures.
The Uyghur minority lives in that province,
The cocktail of aggrieved and its explosive potential began to be unmanageable for Beijing, considers a professor at a university that applies the tools of Marxist analysis to describe the social response against an "authoritarian" government: there were the capitalists, the petty bourgeoisie and also the class worker, in addition to ethnic minorities.
In the opinion of this intellectual, who teaches in Beijing and prefers to remain anonymous, the demonstrations were the key to change.
But the propaganda, he concludes, has been in charge of changing the story immediately, attributing the reopening to other factors, such as the decrease in the virulence of the covid and the economy.
Beijing responded with a strong police deployment.
Then, with shy gestures of reopening.
And when he finally dropped the anti-pandemic wall, there was not even an appearance by the president.
That December 7, the same day as the policy change, Xi traveled to Saudi Arabia to meet, among others, King Salman bin Abulaziz al Saud.
The silence about a central policy linked to his figure was surprising to many.
He took more than three weeks to pronounce himself.
“Our country is great,” he finally said in his traditional New Year's speech on December 31.
“It is natural for different people to have different concerns or hold different points of view on the same issue.”
Many interpreted these words as a reference to the protests.
And he added:
Almost overnight, China has gone from zero covid to what could be called
with a tsunami of infections, a barrage of hospitalizations and, presumably, deaths.
The official figures only include 32 deaths from coronavirus in the month since the turnaround: an average of just over one death per day in a country of 1.4 billion people.
The authorities, on the other hand, internally handle astronomical figures, of up to 250 million infected only in the first three weeks of December, according to the notes of a meeting of the National Health Commission revealed by Bloomberg.
The World Health Organization has been criticizing Beijing for weeks for the lack of transparency in the data on hospitalizations and deaths, which has caused the anger of China, which ensures that it shares information "openly".
The restrictions that countries such as the United States, Japan, Italy and Spain have begun to impose on travelers from China, in addition to the recommendation to do so by the European Union, threaten to open a new front in disputes between China and the West. .
The data communicated by Beijing is "pure bullshit", assesses a Western health source based in the Chinese capital who knows first-hand the testimony of the country's medical personnel.
“There is no doubt that there is a massive wave with very, very high infection rates” and “a huge excess mortality among the elderly.”
As his Chinese colleagues tell him: “Of course people are dying.
Of course the pavilions are completely overflowing.
Of course they have transformed all the other rooms into covid rooms and have stopped all kinds of selective intervention.
Of course, there will be people who will suffer because of it, because they won't be able to get the care they need for other conditions."
Despite the absence of reliable and systematic communication, images of overcrowded hospitals, overcrowded morgues and overcrowded crematoria circulate on social media and in the Western media.
Even the state-owned
Shanghai Daily has come to publish this Friday a video with harsh images of a hospital in the financial capital that receives 1,700 patients daily.
“There are too many critical patients,” says a nurse.
Beijing, at least in appearance, is back to normal.
The frozen lakes are full of people sliding, the children are back at school, at night there is a considerable hubbub outside bars and clubs, and rush hour traffic has regained its slow, heavy vigour.
But there are flashes that reveal that something is still going on under the surface.
“We work non-stop,” says a health worker on Thursday about to board the emergency vehicle with her colleagues.
They have just left a hotel and convention center located on the outskirts, converted these days into a kind of emergency center.
At the door, there are about 20 ambulances parked.
The team gets on one, turns on the lights and leaves the parking lot.
“It is chaos.
Hospitals are suffering a systemic collapse, they are under a huge wave of new coronavirus infections, they are running out of beds”, describes a thirty-something Beijing artist who participated in the blank folios protests.
In his opinion, people are not too happy about the reopening.
“We don't have messenger RNA vaccines and we can't get Paxlovid and Veklury [Western drugs to treat covid] either.
It is extremely difficult to get ibuprofen or something similar.
If you catch the covid you can only wait for it to heal or for it to get worse.
Deng Libo, 45, a migrant worker who chains jobs in Beijing and lives in a small cabin on the outskirts (for which he pays a monthly rent of about 70 euros), is instead in favor of the shift in strategy.
With the lockdowns, he acknowledges, life was "very limited" and his income quite "unstable."
“But reopening also carries costs.”
With the Chinese New Year holidays approaching, Deng has returned to the small village where he is originally from, in Jilin province.
He is confident that when he comes back things will be "much better" in terms of income.
The wave of infections, according to the western health source, could have started to drop in the capital.
But the influx of seriously ill has yet to abate, he adds.
For this expert, everything can be summed up in one point: "There was never a reopening strategy," he says.
“The biggest mistake is that for a year they didn't plan for what was going to happen,” he adds.
“They weren't ready and could have been.
It was very clear that the different pillars of the response had to be built.
They only focused on one, stopping the virus, but they never took care of protecting people with vaccines, strengthening hospital capacity, changing the way hospitals work…”.
The key question is whether all this will take its toll on Xi.
This source ponders the answer in a popular cafe in Beijing's diplomatic quarter;
a lively hustle and bustle is heard at the adjoining tables.
"We'll have to see," he replies.
“I think that there are sectors of the population that have lost a lot of confidence and faith in the system and in the leaders, and now even more.
Is this a threat to the current system, to the leader?
I don't know.
Chinese society has gone through unbelievable waves of…pure bullshit.”
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