Chinese leader Xi Jinping hoped for smooth sailing ahead of this fall’s 20th Party Congress, during which he planned to win a precedent-snapping third term in power. But the omicron-fueled COVID-19 outbreaks in multiple cities have dampened that hope and are now the single greatest challenge standing between Xi and his ambitions. To confront this threat, he is doubling down on his “zero-COVID” policy—a decision that could make or break his leadership.
This is not altogether uncharted territory. The Wuhan outbreak and subsequent lockdowns in early 2020 posed a massive threat to Xi’s leadership, causing him to temporarily disappear from the public eye. Ultimately, however, Xi managed to emerge with a sense of vindication, as propaganda showed the pandemic surging overseas while most parts of China went months at a time, if sometimes implausibly, without reporting a single local infection. The question is, can he pull it off a second time?
Wuhan in 2020 looks like child’s play compared to the current situation. While the Wuhan outbreak occurred due to a cover-up and inaction on the part of the government, the omicron variant is spreading despite the government’s employment of drastic—even harsh—measures to keep infections as low as possible. A study published by research firm Gavekal Dragonomics earlier this month found that 87 of China’s 100 largest cities by GDP had some form of quarantine restrictions in place. Chinese media reported that, as of April 18, 30 million residents across some 20 regions were confined to their homes. Last weekend, a growing outbreak in Beijing prompted panic buying by residents concerned they may be the next city to get locked down.
Some in the West expected the highly infectious nature of omicron to force Beijing to follow the lead of most of the rest of the world in opening up, so as to minimize the disruption to the economy and society. But from Xi’s perspective, this was likely never a feasible solution. Two years of relentless propaganda have tied his and the Communist Party’s fortunes to their success at keeping COVID-19 cases and fatalities to a minimum. The prospect of an uncontained outbreak overwhelming the nation’s healthcare system and resulting in tens of thousands of deaths among the under-vaccinated elderly population is too risky in Xi’s calculation, especially in the lead-up to a Party Congress.
Yet, strict adherence to this policy also carries risks. China’s economy is already reeling from these lockdowns, and the longer they continue, the more difficult it will be to achieve the 5.5% growth target set at the annual legislative session last month. Furthermore, the lockdown in Shanghai has showcased the strain these policies have on social stability, which has been tested by various forms of protests and even some looting. Though unlikely, if a lockdown anywhere leads to mass unrest, it could quickly spiral out of control, resulting in a crackdown by security forces that would seriously damage public perceptions of the regime’s legitimacy and risk creating a fissure in the leadership.
More likely than mass unrest, however, is the prospect that omicron is so infectious that, despite the economic and social costs, even the most severe lockdowns might fail to contain the virus. This is the biggest threat facing Xi ahead of the Party Congress. Most economic and social costs can be rationalized, as long as the lockdowns are successful. However, failure to stop the virus’ spread will threaten public perception of Xi’s and the leadership’s competence and legitimacy during a politically sensitive year. Xi can have local officials fired for mismanaging an outbreak, but as the loudest voice in support of zero-COVID policy, he is backing himself into a corner from which the only way out is success.
To be sure, the likelihood that COVID-19 will force Xi out of power is extremely low. Roughly half a year before the Party Congress will likely be held, no one has been groomed as a possible successor, and state propaganda—which Xi controls through well-placed political allies—continues to tout his leadership as essential for the country’s future. Furthermore, China’s strict approach to managing the pandemic continues to hold popular appeal in China among those not directly affected by lockdowns.
Only a power struggle within the party could force Xi out of power at this point. But Xi has spent his first decade in power sidelining his rivals and replacing them with loyalists. With his level of factional control especially in the Chinese Communist Party’s highest organs, Xi is unlikely to lose such a struggle. Indeed, he has survived many crises and, if history is any guide, he could very well emerge from the current one stronger and more in control than ever.
Nevertheless, if Xi’s gambit doesn’t pay off—if his harsh measures ultimately bring the economy to a standstill yet still fail to contain the outbreaks—he will not emerge unscathed. For example, his loss of credibility could make it harder or even impossible for him to drive policy in areas that traditionally fall outside the General Secretary’s remit, such as the economy. Depending on how badly he is discredited, the party may nominate a successor-in-waiting at this Party Congress to prevent Xi from getting a fourth term in 2027—an accomplishment he is otherwise on track to achieve.
Xi’s third term could also be affected if COVID-19 developments make him unable to continue stacking party organs with his loyal protégées. Some key political allies Xi hopes to get promoted at the Party Congress could disqualify themselves by bungling outbreaks, challenging his hopes of obtaining a factional majority in the ruling Politburo Standing Committee. The still uncertain fate of Shanghai Party Secretary Li Qiang—a key Xi ally initially favored for promotion to the Standing Committee—is one case in point.
Should Xi ultimately be successful, there also is a tremendous upside for him. If China quickly stamps out the virus in each locked-down city, Xi will likely emerge poised to push through his agenda with even fewer checks than he currently faces. The improving situation in northeastern China’s Jilin province shows, to the extent the government figures can be believed, that this can be achieved even with the omicron variant, and Xi’s efforts to position himself as the chief promoter of China’s zero-COVID policy indicates that he fully expects this to be the case throughout the country.
Indeed, Xi expects the zero-COVID policy to succeed at preventing a major legitimacy crisis before the Party Congress, even if it comes at a high economic and social cost. It’s a gamble, but China’s leader has gambled before and won.