The impromptu legal conference comes amid a new wave of resentment over state overreach in Shanghai, where, in a bid to end China’s worst coronavirus outbreak since 2020, the city government this week further toughened restrictions in certain districts. In some areas, residential buildings and shops have been boarded up. Officials confiscated house keys to prevent isolation jail breaks, while empty houses of people placed in centralized quarantine were turned upside down by spraying them with disinfectant.
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The growing disruption to daily life from China’s “zero covid” policy, promoted at the highest level, risks alienating a population that has come to rely on what some scholars describe as the Communist Party’s implicit contract. with the public: leadership supports the economy, allows people to get rich and stays out of everyday affairs in exchange for political immobility.
“The unspoken agreement between us has been broken,” said a Shanghai-based Chinese journalist who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of repercussions. “Originally, you let me live a happy life, I wouldn’t do anything against your interests, but that kind of trust doesn’t exist anymore. I think that may be the most serious problem. [caused by lockdown].”
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While policymakers seem genuinely concerned about a possible “tsunami” of infections and deaths from the coronavirus spreading unchecked, the choice to stick with the current policy was also made because President Xi Jinping believes that the fact that China reaches zero cases demonstrates the superiority of its government over Western democracies. , particularly the United States, according to Lynette Ong, a professor of Chinese politics at the University of Toronto.
“He pushed himself into a corner, where it’s hard to push politics back,” he said.
The politicized nature of the zero-Covid policy is raising fears about Xi’s personal style of governance, which increasingly relies on mass mobilizations in which every person is expected to follow orders. Such reassertion of the party in the lives of ordinary citizens draws comparisons to dark periods in China’s past and raises fears that there is no longer room in society to live a quiet life without the interruption of ideologically motivated campaigns.
The escalation of the Shanghai lockdown was sparked by a meeting last week of the Communist Party’s powerful Politburo Standing Committee, where Xi doubled down on the policy of total intolerance of coronavirus infections in the general population. The meeting concluded that anyone who doubts or denies the approach must be “fighted”.
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Soon after, Shanghai began to reverse what had been a gradual, albeit uneven, easing. Li Qiang, the local party secretary, described the new measures as “military orders,” invoking a practice in which army officers vow to achieve success or accept martial punishment for failure.
“It definitely has overtones of the ‘great leap forward’ of the 1950s, when politics was in control,” said Carl Minzner, senior fellow for China studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, referring to Mao Zedong’s disastrous campaign to catch up with industrialized countries. nations’ steel and grain production that ended in mass famine.
One of the defining tragedies of Mao’s rule was skewed policy, due in part to fearful lower-level officials who reported a more rosy-than-reality picture to their superiors. The famine that followed the Great Leap was exacerbated by localities covering up their grain shortages. Critics say Xi could also make such errors in judgment, as dissenting voices are silenced and local officials tell superiors what they want to hear.
In the post-Mao reform period that began in 1978, party leaders began to leave day-to-day control to pundits, allowing for more openness and discussion. But since Xi took over, the party has reasserted itself.
“That has a dampening effect on the discussion within the party state,” Minzner said. “People start repeating like a parrot what they think the top leader wants to hear. And lo and behold, policy making becomes very brittle and very extreme.”
There has been speculation about the political ramifications of public anger over the closures ahead of a leadership shake-up in the fall, when many of the party’s top officials are expected to be replaced.
Some analysts say the backlash in Shanghai will make it harder for Li, the 62-year-old party chief who is considered an ally of Xi, to secure a leadership position on the Politburo Standing Committee.
In addition to tracking possible promotions or demotions, however, most expect Xi’s direct control over congressional decision-making to increase. This could take the form of a new title such as “party chairman” or “leader of the people.” Xi’s personal political ideology may also have high status, making it on a par with that of party founder Mao.
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However, acts of violence by police and low-level officials enforcing restrictions in Shanghai have drawn comparisons in line with the chaos and trauma of the last years of the Mao era. In a video posted on the Weibo microblog on Monday, a homeowner walks through his apartment and sees everything that disappeared during disinfection, including food from the refrigerator, sheets, curtains and clothes.
The most liked comment under the video read “Oh, I’ve seen this in the history books, its search and seizure,” a reference to a common practice during the Cultural Revolution in the late 1960s, when Radical “red guards” raided houses for prohibited items.
While Xi’s governing style remains distinct from Mao’s preference for chaotic mass movements, scholars say both leaders share a preference for political campaigns to mobilize the whole of society.
In a sign of how fed up residents are, middle-class Shanghainese like the man in the red raincoat are now appealing to the rule of law to roll back state overreach.
He was possibly inspired by the Chinese jurist Luo Xiang, who, in a lecture that went viral, explained how state power should extend only as far as it is codified in law. In video after video, residents began echoing Luo to demand a legal justification for the harsh measures.
But China’s top leaders are less interested in the law than in achieving the results they want, even if it means breaking that law, the Shanghai-based journalist warned: “Chinese politics is about results. The law is about procedure, but they don’t care about procedure. They just want results.”
Eva Dou in Shenzhen, China contributed to this report.