Ji Hengge is a young revolutionary communist on the Chinese mainland who uses a pseudonym for security reasons. We interviewed him in mid-January and asked him to talk about the contradictions of the Chinese government’s shift from a COVID zero strategy to openness over the past three years and its impact on the grassroots peoples, as well as the prospects for the working class struggle. — Editor
1) What is your assessment of the CCP’s changing zero COVID response throughout 2020, 2021 and their present abandonment of the strategy? How does their response fit into Xi and the CCP’s broader state-building project?
Ji Hengge: When the Covid-19 first emerged in late 2019 and January 2020, the Chinese government adopted a policy of concealing the Covid-19 until the end of January 2020, when the Covid-19 was no longer under control, and then suddenly shifted to strict zero measures, which were gradually changed to a “dynamic zero-Covid-19” strategy by April 2020. Since then, the Chinese government has lifted lock-down measures in non-infected areas and has resumed transport, work and school life to some extent.
The dynamic zero Covid-19 strategy had a better effect in 2021, allowing China to avoid a widespread infestation of Delta and to ensure to some extent a recovery of economic activity, but at that time the problem of over-proofing was manifested in individual areas (e.g. Xinjiang and Ruili, Yunnan). In 2022, with the spread of the faster-spreading Omicron variant, the dynamic zero Covid-19 strategy is seriously challenged, with many regions relying on universal nucleic acid testing to monitor and avoid Covid-19 infection, and with significant resources devoted to containment and nucleic acid testing without a substantial boost in medical resources. In the first half of 2022, as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic in Shanghai, which brought production and life to a halt, many more people died from the lockdown measure than from Covid-19.
The government’s gross violations of human rights and serious disruptions to productive activities everywhere in order to achieve the dynamic zero Covid-19 strategy provoked discontent among the general public and capitalists against the dynamic clearance policy, and this discontent finally erupted into an anti-lockdown social movement in November 2022. The government was pressured by social protests on the one hand, and by the economic crisis on the other, so it quickly abandoned the dynamic zeroing policy again.
Covid’s initial concealment is a sign of the bureaucracy that has always been present. The pandemic brought about by the concealment triggered a public outcry against the government, and a strategy of lockdown and zero Covid-19 strategy was embarked upon to appease the public and to compete with the West for “system” advantage. In addition, the sequestration brought about by the zero Covid-19 strategy also served as an exercise in the Xi regime’s intense control over society, and the comprehensive grasp and monitoring of personal information has never reached such a high level. Today the government has abandoned dynamic zero Covid-19 strategy, mainly to meet the needs of normal capitalist functioning.
2) How has the Chinese economy’s fortunes changed throughout the pandemic? For a while, zero COVID could be sustained with a relative degree of economic growth. But now the economic situation has turned bad for the Chinese ruling class. In what way is that influencing the decision to abandon zero COVID? What economic challenges do they now face? And what consequences does this have for the global economy?
Ji Hengge: Before the pandemic, China’s economic growth had already declined, with a large number of factories closing and workers losing their jobs, and many manufacturing companies moving to Vietnam as average profit margins fell, so the pandemic simply exacerbated China’s economic crisis.
During the pandemic, China’s recession became more pronounced, with some quarters experiencing negative growth, something that had not happened since the Reform and Open of the country in 1978. At the same time, the economic problems that preceded the pandemic continue to be severe, such as a more pronounced decline in manufacturing, the near bursting of China’s key pillar industry, the real estate bubble, and the continued decline in real estate investment. In addition, the restaurant, tourism and retail sectors were also hit hard by the lockdown measures during the pandemic, which increased the petty bourgeoisie’s resentment of the government.
The economic recession and severe unemployment had already severely impacted on the stability of the regime, with growing discontent among the working people and a backlash from capitalists against these policies that affected normal business, especially when an anti-lockdown social movement broke out in November, prompting a decision at the highest level of the CCP to abandon the zero Covid-19 strategy.
In addition, data suggest that the Omicron variant is less harmful than Delta and the original Covid-19 virus, leading the leaders of the Party and State to believe that abandoning the zero Covid-19 Strategy at this time would not pose a very serious public health crisis.
The abandonment of the zero Covid-19 strategy will lead to a recovery in industries such as catering and tourism, and a small recovery in manufacturing, but the fundamental problems that triggered the economic crisis have not been solved, and the decline in industry and real estate in particular will continue. On the other hand, since the U.S.-China trade war, China has sought to vigorously develop its high-tech industries, particularly the chip industry, in order to break the technological barriers imposed by the US, but progress in this regard has been limited. So the Chinese economy will show a slow growth in the next few years, and may have negative growth at individual times.
The current recession in China will push domestic monopoly capital to increase its export of capital, which will intensify competition with other countries in terms of trade and investment, and this will also lead to increased political confrontation. At the same time, China’s large state-owned monopoly capital groups will become stronger during the crisis and the monopoly of the Chinese economy will increase further. The real estate crisis, on the other hand, will increase the level of financial risk in China, which will make international financial capital less stable.
3) The abandonment of zero COVID is a huge attack on the working class. Has there been any resistance to the abandonment of zero COVID so far? What prospects do you see for working class resistance in the coming period?
Ji Hengge: The abandonment of the zero Covid-19 strategy was not met with mass resistance from the working class, and some workers would fight against the company for full pay for the period of leave due to the infection, but these struggles were sporadic and did not lead to mass collective resistance. In general, many people in China are fearful of abandoning the closure control measures because the Chinese government has long publicized the high mortality rate or serious sequelae of Covid-19. This, coupled with the fact that since December the pandemic has led to a large number of deaths among the elderly, the Chinese government has not prepared adequately for the abandonment of the lockdown, resulting in a severe shortage of basic medicines such as antipyretics in many major cities and a serious overcrowding of hospitals with fever patients. But these brought mainly emotional catharsis, not a realistic movement of resistance.
But because of the impact of the November demonstrations, many people are aware of the power of struggle for change, so working-class resistance that begins for a variety of reasons will increase in intensity and scale. In early January, for example, workers at a pharmaceutical factory in Chongqing triggered a strike involving 20,000 people after the factory fired more than 10,000 workers without consulting them and owed them wages due to a drop in orders from medical companies following the abandonment of the zero-Covid-19 strategy. This is another massive worker protest since the Foxconn workers’ demonstration in Zhengzhou in November. It is important to note that collective actions of more than 1000 workers are rare during 2015-2021.
It is foreseeable that working-class protests will be more frequent in the coming years, although due to political repression and the lack of a socialist political orientation, most of the demands of the protests will be mainly in the economic sphere, and it remains to be seen to what extent workers will be organized in the protests.
Actively observing the workers’ movement in the coming years and intensifying propaganda will be the urgent task facing revolutionary communists in Mainland China.
Photo: Demonstrators in Beijing in November 2022 protest zero-COVID lockdown policies. (Bloomberg)