Xi Jinping and the CCP are courting disaster

In part 3 of the series, we examine how the situation in Shanghai is just the tip of the iceberg and how Xi and the CCP’s survival are on the line

TAICHUNG (Taiwan News) — China is heading towards a series of crises that could seriously threaten Chairman Xi Jinping’s (習近平) ability to stay in power and potentially destabilize the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) regime. With Xi attempting to secure a third five-year term as chairman later this year, this will be a pivotal year for China: either he secures it and continues on his clearly desired path to be dictator for life or his control — and possibly the CCP’s — unravels.

In my previous column, we examined the post-Tiananmen unwritten agreement between the CCP and the Han majority in China, where I lived in the early 2000s. In short, people understood they were undergoing a transition from a poverty-stricken existence, with their lives micromanaged by the party-state, to a modern society and that it wasn’t going to be an entirely smooth process.

Most important was that things were moving in the right direction. The economy was booming, incomes were rising rapidly, opportunities abounded, the nation was once again becoming “glorious” on the world stage, and — as long as criticisms of the government weren’t made too public — people’s lives were becoming far freer.

As long as that sense of movement in the right direction held, the CCP’s rule was secure, with the general support of the public and its problems tolerated. That may no longer be true as the economy slows, freedoms are massively curtailed, and even social initiatives intended to be popular are carried out in a hamfisted manner.

That creates one of the key conditions for major change, which usually happens “slowly, then suddenly.” A long, slow burn of discontent builds that can spark a raging prairie fire when a crisis arises.

But even a discontented public may not be pushed into taking action if there is fundamental confidence in the ability of the state to handle the crisis: people will often tolerate less freedom as well as problematic issues like corruption in exchange for safety and security under the control of effective rulers.

In the first piece of this series, we looked at how the CCP has recently had a very poor record of handling major crises, and this may have shaken the confidence of the public.

A string of crises has arisen through the failure of long-term planning.

The initial official reaction is usually confused, uncoordinated, and inept, as lower-ranking officials are more concerned with their jobs than dealing with the situation at hand. Then, orders are issued from on high, and they are uniformly blunt, brutal, and excessive in their implementation. This compounds the initial crisis and even creates further problems.

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We can’t know for sure just how much confidence the Chinese public has lost in the CCP; there are no reliable ways allowed by the party-state to ascertain this, and China is a massive country of 1.4 billion with diverse outlooks and circumstances.

It is safe, however, to assume by this point that confidence isn’t as strong as it once was. And very soon it could be put to the test, as there are a number of potential crises looming.

One is already unfolding in Shanghai, a city of 25 million locked down in a dystopian nightmare. Troops are reportedly being brought in to control the situation as angry mobs scuffle with police outfitted in sci-fi villain-esque white hazmat suits, with some citizens even shouting “Down with Xi Jinping; down with the Communist Party.”

Rushed quarantines have seen children separated from parents, pets left behind and sometimes killed, and thousands housed in hastily set up, unsanitary, and crowded concentration camp-style quarantine centers where the lights are left on 24 hours a day and there are no showers. Food and medicine is in short supply, with some reports of starvation and people seeking medical treatment being turned away.

Videos show people wailing and screaming in despair from their apartment blocks while drones and robot dogs roam the city barking out lockdown orders through loudspeakers. Just watching those videos sends chills down the spine. Imagine how those living in this futuristic hellscape must feel.

Try as the censors might, they have been unable to completely lock down the flow of footage and information leaking out. In the best-case scenario for the CCP, this situation can be wound down and the pandemic brought under control — but the people’s confidence will have taken yet another big hit.

But can the CCP bring this under control? Many news outlets are reporting that “full or partial lockdowns are in place in 45 Chinese cities, affecting a quarter of the country’s population and about 40% of the economy.”

Considering how contagious Omicron and its new subvariants are, it seems unlikely to be brought under control permanently in a country as huge and connected to the world as China. And yet, amazingly, Xi is doubling down on his “dynamic zero-Covid” policy.

Apparently, Xi’s fear of losing face and damaging his carefully constructed image as the “visionary” behind the now constitutionally enshrined “Xi Jinping Thought” makes zero Covid worth the risk. He does still have time to make a painful climbdown from this and avoid the risk of the nightmare in Shanghai becoming the reality across the nation; after all, Taiwan has pivoted away from its zero-Covid policy. But as of yet there is no sign of him doing so.

Xi is now the face of the policy in Shanghai. This makes it harder for him to blame local officials or foreigners for the disaster, though no doubt he will try.

No matter what he does at this point, he will take damage. However, as long as the situation remains temporary — either by miraculously bringing it under control or changing the policy — he will still have a good chance of holding on to power.

But if the outbreak does spread to other cities and goes on for months, and if lockdowns are handled like in Shanghai, his prospects could change dramatically. People are more forgiving of temporary hardships than of those with no end in sight.

Already supply chains are struggling, but if lockdowns continue to spread across China that problem will be compounded. Though it is unlikely the supply chains would be shut down entirely, they would be seriously disrupted, which means crucial supplies of basic goods like food and medicine could slow to a trickle.

Three massive problems could then be added to the mix: widespread blackouts, food shortages, and spiraling inflation. Without the supply chains operating properly, critical supplies of coal, oil, and natural gas may be disrupted or slowed, making it hard to keep the power on around the clock.

Supplies of fertilizer and seeds are already being constricted in parts of the country during planting season, storing up potential domestic supply crises for harvest season in the fall.

And as the supply of food and other basic necessities is constricted, eventually prices will rise and black markets appear to meet basic demands. Lockdown blockade runners will arise if there is enough desperation.

Some in the government are aware of the threats to the supply chain, and the vice premier (but not Xi) has called for them to be stabilized. The government, however, could be forced to deal with the contradictions between stabilizing and Chairman Xi’s insistence on keeping the zero-Covid policy going, and it’s uncertain whether the CCP can find a compromise.

If it doesn’t, it will be disastrous. And an even worse fate for China’s rulers could be on the horizon, which is the subject of the next column.

Courtney Donovan Smith (石東文) is a regular contributing columnist for Taiwan News, the central Taiwan correspondent for ICRT FM100 Radio News, co-publisher of Compass Magazine, co-founder of Taiwan Report (report.tw), and former chair of the Taichung American Chamber of Commerce

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