China’s failure to develop coronavirus vaccines that work has resulted in societal chaos gripping many Chinese cities amid draconian lockdowns.
Beijing’s reasoning for the lockdowns has been to prevent COVID’s spread through the unvaccinated populace. But analysts say the Chinese Communist Party also embraced the lockdowns over the past year as a tool to control the masses during the politically sensitive months surrounding the recent CCP Congress.
While that factor has loomed in the backdrop, international health experts say China’s weak vaccines, coupled with Beijing’s ongoing refusal to allow the use of highly effective Western-designed mRNA vaccines, is coursing beneath the crisis facing the CCP.
With some of the protests featuring calls for an end of authoritarian rule in China and the resignation of Chinese President Xi Jinping, the crisis has created a pressure-cooker situation for Beijing.
Beijing has tried to discredit protesters by accusing them of working for “foreign forces,” a reference to long-running complaints by CCP officials that Washington and other Western governments are trying to sabotage China’s economic and political rise as a global power.
At a minimum, the spread of video footage showing widening clashes between protesters and riot police is putting pressure on Mr. Xi to consider shifting away from his zero-COVID policy — a move that could be disastrous, given data suggesting coronavirus cases would surge.
On Wednesday, China’s National Health Commission reported 37,828 new cases over the previous 24 hours, including 33,540 without symptoms.
But as many as 2.1 million people in China could be at risk of death if Mr. Xi lifts the zero-COVID policy amid the low vaccination rates and the lack of hybrid immunity within the Chinese populace, according to the London-based health analytics firm Airfinity.
“Mainland China has very low levels of immunity across its population,” according to an analysis circulated by the firm this week. “Its citizens were vaccinated with domestically produced jabs Sinovac and Sinopharm, which have been proven to have significantly lower efficacy and provide less protection against infection and death.”
Political pressure finds Chinese authorities with few options. Reuters reported that the giant Chinese cities of Guangzhou and Chongqing announced an easing of COVID lockdowns Wednesday, a day after demonstrators in southern Guangzhou clashed with riot police.
The news agency’s Hong Kong bureau reported on Thursday that Chinese authorities were preparing to announce an easing of COVID-19 quarantine protocols in the coming days and a reduction in mass testing, a marked shift in policy.
China’s National Health Commission acknowledged the depth of public anger during a press briefing Tuesday. An account of the NHC meeting by the official Xinhua news agency quoted a commission spokesman saying, “Excessive control measures should be continuously rectified, and the reasonable requests of the people should be responded to and addressed in a timely manner.”
The zero-COVID policy was announced in 2020 by Mr. Xi as a mass campaign backed by the ruling Communist Party. The idea behind the policy was that China would use its strong state apparatus to eliminate all forms of the virus that through the omicron variant has continued to spread through the country’s 1.4 billion people.
While China’s death and infection rates have been lower than those of other major countries, including the U.S., global health experts have criticized Beijing’s approach as unsustainable, as it has triggered public outrage and mounting domestic economic woes.
This is not to mention the potential for a widening new health crisis, stemming from the country’s low vaccination rate.
“Unfortunately, the vaccines in China were not very good,” Dr. Paul Hunter, a professor of medicine at Britain’s University of East Anglia, told London’s Guardian newspaper. He added that the vaccination levels of China’s most vulnerable people are low and much of the protection provided by Chinese vaccination shots has faded for those immunized.
In the meantime, other world powers have begun calling on China to allow the import of Western vaccines.
Steffen Hebestreit, chief spokesman for Germany’s government, told reporters this week that Berlin had “taken note” of the protests in China as well as “reports about partly violent actions of the [Chinese] security forces against the demonstrators.”
Mr. Hebestreit suggested Beijing should address concerns about its COVID policies by using mRNA vaccines produced by Western pharma companies BioNTech/Pfizer and Moderna, according to a report by Politico, which noted the mRNA vaccines have let most countries abandon most of their coronavirus restrictions.
While international debate swirls around the question of how the CCP will respond to the crisis, some analysts predict the situation could result in more repressive policies.
David O. Shullman, a former U.S. intelligence official currently heading the Global China Hub at the Atlantic Council in Washington, says that while public protests in China are common, the current dynamics are noteworthy for a few reasons.
“It is the size and geographic spread of unrest across multiple cities emerging from a shared frustration with a central government policy — in this case, strict measures — and instances of broader anger at the government and at Xi Jinping himself that are highly unusual and no doubt concerning for Xi and other leaders,” Mr. Shullman said in comments circulated to reporters this week.
“This does not mean we are witnessing the beginning of the end of the Communist Party. But the question now becomes whether the playbook of a relatively restrained police crackdown, stepped-up propaganda and censorship efforts, and selective arrests employed thus far will be effective in quelling protests,” he said.
“If unrest grows, with tens of thousands protesting across major cities, it is not implausible that Xi may step up use of China’s internal security apparatus — including the [People’s Armed Police] — to restore order and to head off the sort of internal factional leadership challenge … in ways almost certain to involve significant casualties,” Mr. Shullman added. “Beyond the potentially awful human toll, this result would likely set the groundwork for even more repressive policies across the board as the party-state’s rule becomes more brittle and reliant on the threat of brute force and information control to maintain power.”
• Bill Gertz contributed to this article.