Xi Jinping opens up on zero COVID reversal: ‘It has not been an easy journey for anyone’

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President Xi Jinping said China has entered a new phase in its fight against the coronavirus and tough challenges remain, his most frank public comments on the reversal of the Covid Zero policy that’s resulted in nationwide outbreaks and tested the health system and economy.

“Following a science-based and targeted approach, we have adapted our Covid response in light of the evolving situation, to protect the life and health of the people to the greatest extent possible,” Xi said in his New Year’s speech Saturday.

On Friday, Xi made his first comments on the Covid Zero policy since his government took its first easing steps on Dec. 7. He said the strategy was “optimized” to protect people’s lives and minimize economic costs. China’s sudden exit from Covid Zero — which for almost three years had required mass testing, snap lockdowns and mostly closed borders — has sparked a surge of infections.

“With extraordinary efforts, we have prevailed over unprecedented difficulties and challenges, and it has not been an easy journey for anyone,” Xi said, in what seems to be a rare acknowledgement of the hardships the Chinese people endured during the punishing lockdowns, as well as in the rapid spread of Covid.

The country is moving into a new phase of Covid control, Xi said, calling on the public to have patience. “Let’s make an extra effort to pull through, as perseverance and solidarity mean victory,” he said, adding the “light of hope is right in front of us.”

China’s economy has “enjoyed sound development,” Xi said. Gross domestic product exceeded 120 trillion yuan ($17.4 trillion) this year, according to Xi, suggesting the economy grew at least 4.4% in 2022. Analysts had forecast growth to slow to 3% this year.

The president had hoped 2022 would be a celebratory year for him, one that allowed him to secure a third term in power at a Communist Party congress in October. Yet more than a month later his government faced the most widespread protests in decades as public anger over the harsh Covid Zero strategy boiled over.

Without referring to the protests, Xi said in his New Year speech that “it is only natural” for the country’s 1.4 billion people to have “different concerns” and “different views” on some issues. “What matters is that we build consensus through communication and consultation,” he said.

Xi’s government abrupt dismantling of its strict policy led to outbreaks in Beijing, Shanghai and several other major cities and provinces.

The result has been busy hospital emergency rooms and crematoriums. The nation could see as many as 25,000 deaths a day from Covid-19 in January, according to Airfinity Ltd., a London-based research firm that focuses on predictive health analytics. 

Xi is betting an economic rebound next year will help the nation through the shock, with officials vowing at a recent meeting of the 24-member Politburo to revive consumption and support the private sector. 

Economic activity is already picking up in some big cities, data on subways, roads, airports and cinemas show. “December will most likely be the bottom of the economy,” Haitong Securities Co. analysts including Liang Zhonghua wrote in a report Thursday.

Challenges

China also faces challenges in its relationship with the US, despite Xi and President Joe Biden taking steps to ease tensions when they met on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit last month in Indonesia.

On Thursday, China’s defense ministry said it was up to the US to “create the conditions” for a resumption of military dialogue that Beijing halted in August, when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan and the People’s Liberation Army responded with unprecedented military drills.

The PLA this week held its biggest exercises since Pelosi’s visit — sending 71 warplanes near the democratically-run island — in a show of Beijing’s displeasure over US lawmakers agreeing to a $1.7 trillion spending bill that included $2 billion in weapons funding for Taipei.

But Xi adopted a milder-than-usual tone in his speech. 

“The people on both sides of the Taiwan Strait are members of one and the same family,” he said. “I sincerely hope that our compatriots on both sides of the Strait will work together with a unity of purpose to jointly foster lasting prosperity of the Chinese nation.”

The president said he was “deeply glad to see that Hong Kong has restored order and is set to thrive again” when he visited the city in July, and said the One Country, Two Systems arrangement will make sure Hong Kong and Macau “enjoy long-term prosperity and stability.”

Hong Kong introduced a Beijing-imposed national security law after it was rocked by pro-democracy protests in 2019 that at times turned violent.

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