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During the long National Day holiday in early October, a few expat friends and I took our young children — who are of mixed race and tend to stand out from the Chinese crowd — to the Great Wall on the outskirts of Beijing.
As we climbed up the restored but almost deserted part of the old landmark, some local families passed us on the way down. Noticing our children, one of their children exclaimed: “Wow foreigners! With the new crown virus? Stay away from them…” The adults were silent, and the group quickened their pace.
That moment has been stuck in my mind. It feels like a snapshot of how China has changed since its strongman leader Xi Jinping came to power a decade ago — it has become more and more closed off, both physically and psychologically — a shift that will generate long-term global impact.
Understanding the big picture is timely as Xi prepares to break the mold and serve a third term as the leader of the Chinese Communist Party at the ruling party’s biannual national congress – the real source of his power, not the nominal chairman . , which opened in Beijing on Sunday.
The Great Wall, a top tourist attraction that usually attracts large numbers of tourists on holidays, was nearly empty in the rest of the world when we went as Xi Jinping insisted on a zero-tolerance policy on coronavirus infections three years after the global pandemic. People mostly moved on and reopened.
China’s borders have been closed to most international travelers since March 2020, while many foreigners who once called China home chose to leave.
Authorities are discouraging domestic travel ahead of the National Day holiday as the highly contagious variant of Omicron rages in parts of the country. They also adhere to a playbook of strict quarantines, ongoing mass testing and invasive contact tracing — often locking down entire cities of millions for just a handful of cases.
Unsurprisingly, holiday travel plummeted along with tourism spending during the so-called “Golden Week” to less than half of what it was in the previous “normal” year, 2019.
It’s not just one industry: As the world’s second-largest economy falters, pessimism has gripped other industries, from autos to real estate.
China’s economic slowdown has created a huge political challenge for Xi, whose party’s legitimacy has relied on rapid growth and rising incomes for 1.4 billion people over the past few decades. It is also a grim reality check for the international community: the world’s long-term growth engine is collapsing, and the prospect of a global recession is emerging.
But Xi’s costly “zero epidemic” intransigence is a natural consequence of the unprecedented power he has amassed. For many Chinese officials, the policy is less about science than about political loyalty to the country’s most powerful leader in decades.
Despite the lack of solid scientific evidence, videos abound online of local health workers swabbing fruit, animals and even shoes to test for the virus. China’s only coronavirus-related death in September was when 27 people died when their bus crashed en route to an isolation facility. Still, with the help of the world’s most advanced surveillance technology, officials across the country have redoubled their efforts to enforce the draconian rules, especially ahead of the party congress.
Even before Covid, China had more security cameras than any other country. Now, in the age of smartphones, mandatory apps allow governments to check people’s Covid status and track their movements in real-time. Authorities can easily confine someone to their home by remotely switching a health app to code red — something they have done several times to keep would-be protesters from taking to the streets.
Whether physical lockdowns or digital manipulations, these “coronavirus-free” measures have proven to be an effective means of control in a system so obsessed with social stability that many fear Xi Jinping and his subordinates will never give up. policy.
A series of recent articles by a Chinese Communist Party mouthpiece underscored the “correctness” and “sustainability” of the policy, reinforcing such concerns, even as Xi hailed “zero coronavirus” as a Before the resounding success story. State media has filled its coverage with depictions of the “grim realities” of foreign countries whose leaders are supposedly turning a blind eye to the mass death and suffering caused by the coronavirus – and China’s “lowest overall cost” to save lives. The apparent victory is in stark contrast.
For years, Xi Jinping’s cyber police have been strengthening China’s so-called “Great Firewall” — possibly the world’s most extensive internet filtering and censorship system, which blocks and removes anything the CCP deems “harmful.” Now powered by artificial intelligence, censors quickly weed out any posts deemed to contradict partisan lines — including on Covid.
This effective combination of propaganda and control under Xi Jinping appears to have had the desired effect on large parts of Chinese society, creating a buffer for the leadership by convincing enough people of the superiority of the Chinese system, even if their Millions of compatriots are dissatisfied with the Chinese system. “Zero Covid-19.” But that approach, combined with prolonged border closures and escalating geopolitical tensions, also provides fertile ground for xenophobia.
The evaluation of the Great Wall by local children reflects this. But the real danger of the “blame the foreigner” sentiment is when adults in high positions take advantage of it when they face increasing pressure at home.
This is Xi Jinping’s vision to make China great again
Since taking power in 2012, Xi Jinping’s governing philosophy has become clearer: Only he can make China great again, by restoring the party’s — that is, his — omnipresence and dominance, and China’s rightful place on the global stage.
As China’s economic and military strength has grown, coexistence with the West has given way to confrontation with the United States and its allies. Gone are the days of “hide your strengths and bide your time” — Chinese diplomats under Xi are proud fighters, trained to fire on anyone who dares to question the government.
Backed by rising nationalism, China has begun to flex its muscles beyond its borders. Tensions over Taiwan pose a real threat of war in Asia, as few doubt that “unification” with the self-governing democratic island – which the Communist leadership has long claimed despite never ruling it – will be seen as Xi Jinping The crown jewel of heritage.
This outward projection of power goes hand in hand with China’s sense of siege of the U.S.-led world order, which Xi has unabashedly sought to reshape alongside other dictators such as Russian President Vladimir Putin. Until then, however, the Chinese strongman’s instincts and demands for total domestic control seem to mean building ever-higher barriers in the real world and in cyberspace to stop pesky outsiders, dangerous viruses and ideas from spreading Perceived source.
A recent history paper published by a government research agency went viral because, like Xi Jinping, it upended long-standing consensus. Rather than condemning the isolationist policies of China’s last two dynasties as the cause of its retrogression and eventual collapse, the author defends its need to protect the country’s sovereignty and security in the face of Western aggressors.
The emperors of those dynasties, who also rebuilt parts of the Great Wall, failed to reverse the decline of their country at the time. But the tools at their disposal are not commensurate with the high-tech tools in the hands of China’s current rulers. Xi Jinping seems confident that his “enclosure” — among other things — will help him achieve his oft-cited ultimate goal: the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.
Whether he succeeds or not, the world will feel the impact for years to come.