China, post-Mao, has embraced a system of ‘responsive authoritarianism’. In this system, credited with China’s regime durability, the government seeks citizens’ feedback and tolerates modest calls for change. This allows the government to make improvements to its policies and thus improve its legitimacy. This is done proactively so that it can respond to weak signals before any opposition becomes too widespread. Yet, following the 20th party congress, many of these responsive mechanisms have lost strength and power has become more centralized around President Xi, who has been portrayed as the sole person who can lead China to glory.
From this perspective, China’s zero-covid strategy posed a significant problem. It was Xi’s signature policy and has been inextricably linked to him. Protests against the strategy could thus only be interpreted as protests against Xi himself and abandoning the strategy because of the protests would mean a major loss of face for Xi.
‘Luckily’, Omicron’s milder symptoms offer an alternative narrative and allow the State to lift the most severe restrictions, without having to acknowledge any mistakes on the side of Xi or the wider government. It will be interesting to see whether this experience will lead to a restoration of the mechanisms of responsive authoritarianism, in order to avoid similar stalemates in the future.