Not long ago a seasoned China watcher told me that he gauges Xi Jinping’s state of mind by keeping an eye on the country’s coronavirus strategy. Were Beijing to loosen its “dynamic zero-Covid” policy after last month’s National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, it would mean an end to the lockdowns, testing and border closures that are clearly dictated by Xi’s desire to consolidate power. But a continuation of the restrictions into their fourth year while the economy slumps and protests grow more frequent would indicate that China’s leader has lost his mind and that we really are dealing with a second Chairman Mao. So it came as a relief when China announced last week that it would reduce the hotel quarantine time for international arrivals from seven days to five, followed by a few days of home isolation. Friends in China had told me before the congress that this was on the cards, even though the state media had clearly stated otherwise.
Taking China’s government at its word is a perennial trap but it’s easy to see why we fall into it so often. At a recent high-level meeting chaired by Xi, Beijing recommitted “unwaveringly” to its zero-Covid approach, refusing to soften any measures. Meanwhile, citywide lockdowns were relaxed. Events on the ground are the only reliable indicator in mainland China and, increasingly so, here in Hong Kong. A new policy of learning to live with coronavirus had been in effect here months before the government eased restrictions and local officials still can’t publicly acknowledge that the dynamic zero-Covid strategy is dead.
That Xi maintains some grip on reality after two years of political isolation bodes well for 2023. This week’s surprisingly friendly meeting with Joe Biden prompted a collective sigh of relief across Asia. We can only hope that the Chinese president’s next step will be to apply pressure on his pal Vladimir Putin. In private, of course. Expect the public expressions of solidarity with Moscow to continue for some time.
James Chambers is Monocle’s Asia editor.