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China signals that its three-year battle with COVID-19 is entering a “new stage”. What it looks like will have enormous political and economic consequences.
But first, here are three new stories from Atlantic.
Play on the sidelines
Could China finally get out of its controversial zero COVID policy? This is what the government seems to be signaling. The change would be long overdue, but also fraught with as many political, economic and social challenges as keeping it in place.
Zero COVID – China’s mandate to suppress infections to zero or near zero – has dominated national politics since the pandemic first emerged in the city of Wuhan three years ago. Although riddled with abuse and excess, the strategy likely averted deaths on the scale seen in the United States and many other countries, especially when vaccines were unavailable. But over the years, the approach – large-scale quarantines, business closures and repetitive testing – has become untenable. The constant disruptions have frustrated the public, isolated the country and weighed on the economy, which the International Monetary Fund says is expected to grow just 3.2% this year, very slow by Chinese standards. Yet President Xi Jinping insisted zero COVID is best for China and refused to budge.
Tension boiled over last weekend when protests against COVID controls erupted in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and other major cities across the country. They were tipped off by a fire in a residential building in Urumqi, the capital of the Xinjiang region, which killed 10 people. Many Chinese believe COVID restrictions have hampered rescue efforts.
The government responded as it always does to the unrest: police swarmed the streets of Beijing to quell further explosions. But officials have also suggested that a change is afoot. Vice Premier Sun Chunlan, who has been an enforcer of zero COVID, said on Wednesday that “with the omicron variant becoming less pathogenic…our fight against the pandemic is at a new stage, and it comes with new tasks.” . The Global Time, a Communist Party-run outlet, joined in arguing that COVID had become less dangerous. Such comments represent a break from the usual message that COVID is a killer and that without tight controls the virus will lead to deaths on an unacceptable scale. Hints of this change were circulating even before the protests. In mid-November, senior management announced that it was “optimizing” the COVID strategy by removing some of its more excessive restrictions.
What exactly this new phase will look like is not at all clear. Steps taken so far to ease the policy have been adjustments to the strict lockdown system, such as some reductions in quarantine periods. Earlier this week, authorities in Beijing said they would not bar entrances to locked buildings, a practice that should have been banned long ago as an affront to both security and human dignity. More easing is sure to come. Cities began to call back COVID testing requirements, which had become an onerous burden on their finances and the patience of their citizens. Chinese leaders appear to be aiming for some kind of halfway state in which they keep many aspects of zero COVID in a more subdued form, hoping to simultaneously prevent an uncontrolled outbreak and assuage public anger.
It may not work. As long as the government continues to rely on detentions and shutdowns to fight COVID, the stagnant economy is unlikely to be revived and people will not be reassured. Any easing will almost certainly lead to a higher number of cases and therefore a higher number of deaths (made more likely by the government’s poor record on vaccinating the elderly). It’s something the Communist Party seems to fear as a threat to its reputation and power, and raises the possibility that policymakers will backtrack and reimpose stifling COVID controls.
Political pitfalls also abound. State propagandists have credited Xi personally with guiding the zero COVID effort, and so lifting it could come across as an admission of failure or error — unpleasant for leadership that describes itself as infallible. More importantly, the Chinese regime and its supporters have marketed the success of zero COVID in containing the virus as proof that China’s authoritarian political system is superior to other forms of governance, especially liberal democracy. In September alone, Xinhua, the state news agency, said “some governments were either indifferent to rising numbers, slow in their actions, or eager to continue with cautious and restrictive protocols.” and so “they are now hastily turning the page when the pandemic is not near the end. If zero COVID goes down, so will the autocracy superiority narrative.
China’s current COVID situation is typical of Xi Jinping’s policy-making. His penchant for extreme positions, often ideological; state action; and stubbornness in the face of changing circumstances are at the root of not only the COVID problem, but also China’s broader economic difficulties and the escalation of conflicts with most major world powers, including United States. Recently, Xi has shown signs of easing beyond COVID: He has agreed to reinstate the dialogue with Washington on climate change, which he had interrupted in August, apparently realizing that his hostility towards the United States had gone too far. Yet, as with COVID, such shifts have happened on the fringes, not the core, of its policies. To get China back on track, he will have to demonstrate a flexibility and pragmatism that have been absent so far. Until then, the country will remain tied to the knots of its making.
- The latest jobs report shows employers hired 263,000 people in November, down slightly from October. The unemployment rate remained stable and wages increased more than expected.
- The EU has set a ceiling price of $60 per barrel of oil sold by Russia.
- President Joe Biden has announced that he is ready to meet with President Vladimir Putin if the latter shows an interest in ending the war with Ukraine. The Kremlin rejected the idea.
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Party invitations for sexy people
By Kaitlyn Tiffany
The holiday season has arrived, and with it the age-old question: What’s the best way to invite people to my party?
Facebook invites are no longer tenable. People don’t use Facebook anymore, which means they might not see your event unless you specifically tell them to pick it up there – horrible. For a big party, I like to send an e-mail. For a small party, why not just create a calendar event and add your loved ones to it without even asking? And for something really crazy, I don’t see what’s wrong with making a flyer and putting it on your Instagram or texting it to everyone you know… But all the options out there have their flaws. Emails can go to spam; flyers can be seen by random and undesirable people; paper invitations are ridiculous and attention-grabbing, like owning a typewriter.
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Isabel Fattal contributed to this newsletter.
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