Xi’s Covid Authoritarianism Meets Red Line at Vaccine Mandates

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(Bloomberg) -- President Xi Jinping has made use of his authoritarian power in China to impose the world’s strictest controls against Covid-19. But there’s one pandemic measure he hasn’t pushed: vaccines.

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China’s first attempt at a vaccine mandate was abruptly scrapped last week within days of being announced by municipal officials in Beijing. The plan to stop people entering public venues without proof of vaccination sparked an outcry online, with Chinese social media users calling it an illegal cap on their freedoms and questioning how effective the vaccines were against immune-evasive variants.

Vaccine mandates have emerged as a surprise red line for the ruling Communist Party, which up until a few years ago controlled citizens’ reproductive rights through its one child-policy and is steaming ahead with other controversial virus curbs, such as widespread tracking of individuals through their phones, mass testing and border curbs.

Joerg Wuttke, president of the European Union Chamber of Commerce in China, slammed Beijing’s back down, saying it undermined the possibility of an exit from Covid Zero.

“This sudden policy U-turn will discourage other cities in China from pursuing an effective vaccination campaign that will protect the population from a virus that is simply not going away,” he said. “China’s economy will continue to suffer.”

A lengthy lockdown in Shanghai this year saw angry residents barricaded into their homes short on food, pets of infected people killed and widespread economic hardship. In that case, officials cited pandemic prevention laws to force residents into compliance and censored calls for change.

Still, China’s leadership has so far been unwilling to throw its political capital or the heft of the security state behind vaccines, despite trumpeting its supply of homegrown shots to other nations and having no road map for exiting Covid Zero without full coverage. It’s unclear if that’s because Xi’s government is unwilling to exercise its power or a lack of consensus about the efficacy of vaccines.

Last month, Xi warned that relying on “herd immunity” would lead to “unimaginable” consequences for a nation of China’s size, where zero virus cases, let alone deaths, are tolerated. Chinese leaders haven’t confirmed whether they’ve even had shots, in contrast with leaders as varied as US President Joe Biden and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who both got vaccinated on camera in 2020.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry has refused to comment on Xi’s vaccination status. Xi’s own statements on vaccines have focused on demands to make them a “global public good,” and advances in science, rather calls for the broader population at home to take them.

Yanzhong Huang, a senior fellow for global health at the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations, said the absence of an explicit signal from Xi had given Beijing authorities leeway to introduce their own policy -- an approach he calls “fragmented authoritarianism.”

“It’s likely that when the vaccine mandate became known there wasn’t just public resistance, they also faced opposition from the government,” he said, adding that the U-turn reflected a lack of broad political consensus on vaccines.

“This impasse can only be broken with the personal intervention by the top leader,” Huang added. “If the top leader is showing a lukewarm attitude that policy impasse will continue.”

China was one of the first countries to approve a homegrown vaccine in December 2020. The Asian giant has since shipped some 2.1 billion doses globally in a push to win diplomatic favor, and got 90% of its 1.4 billion people fully vaccinated.

Yet, that figure falls dramatically among the elderly. Only half those age 80 and above were fully immunized in March, the most recent national numbers. Some 500 people died in Shanghai earlier this year, but the city’s elderly still didn’t get the shot in the weeks after the lockdown, despite being offered cash rewards.

The elderly are even still advised by some doctors to avoid shots if they have chronic illness. Authorities’ reluctance to push vaccinations in this demographic contrasts with their strict enforcement of mass lockdowns and testing, and the pressure put on students and employees at state-owned enterprises to get vaccinated.

Furthermore, Wu Liangyou, deputy director of the National Health Commission’s Disease Control Bureau, pledged in October that vaccination should be voluntary -- something social media users in Beijing reminded officials of last week. An article posted on “Wuyou Zhixiang,” a prominent online platform for China’s Maoist leftists, questioned whether authorities would somehow profit from a mandate, suggesting without evidence there was collusion with manufacturers.

That sort of public push back as Xi prepares to win a landmark third term in office at a twice-a-decade political summit this year, would likely deter party officials jostling for promotion from pushing any policy the central government has backed.

“There is already palpable public frustration with the Covid Zero approach and slower economic growth,” said Chong Ja Ian, an associate professor at the National University of Singapore’s political science department. “This could result in more popular resistance to public health measures in the lead-up to the 20th party congress, and increase the risk of infections.”

Omicron’s immune escape from both China’s inactivated vaccines and foreign mRNA shots it has made it impossible for the world’s second-largest economy to rely on vaccines to exit Covid Zero.

Instead, China’s pandemic controls are relying on mass testing, lockdowns and border curbs that have caused economists to predict the country will miss its ambitious target for annual GDP growth of about 5.5%. “It is hard to resist the conclusion that the authorities think the effectiveness of their lockdowns mean vaccines are not that important,” Richard McGregor, senior fellow for East Asia at the Lowy Institute, said.

For Scott Rosenstein, senior public health adviser at the Eurasia Group, the vaccines were also less useful to Xi on a soft power and diplomatic basis, due to their lower efficacy and a surplus of other shots on the market.

“The Chinese leadership realized from the beginning that these vaccines don’t do a great job at stopping transmission, and that was enough to de-prioritize vaccination,” he said. “It seems like China’s leaders are genuinely reluctant to put too much stock in vaccination.”

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