Is China stress-testing for war?

IT SEEMS that few places are currently safe from Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s ‘Zero Covid’ strategy, a policy designed to keep his country’s Covid death rate (a figure often disputed by the outside world) at an extremely low level just as the rest of the world is learning to live with the virus.

The stories coming out of China are staggering, with whole communities moved or quarantined over just one positive Covid case. One must wonder why the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) would risk national cohesion and economic growth by closing some of China’s most important cities, given that the battle against the Omicron variant is one they are almost certain to lose. Even WHO has criticised China’s Zero Covid approach as being “unsustainable”..

Symbolising the unprecedented opposition to the Chinese Government’s policies, one recent video protesting the Shanghai lockdown – Voices of April – went viral on the Chinese internet, outpacing censors as it was re-shared millions of times on the social media platform, Weibo. 

The great risk for the Chinese people is that in such an authoritarian state committed to such a seemingly unrealistic goal, no sooner has one area opened back up than it could be forced to shut back down again. In other words, this could become a permanent state of affairs. 

One explanation for such draconian measures is that China’s inadequate healthcare system would simply not cope with a high volume of Covid cases and deaths. A collapsing healthcare system would do enormous reputational harm to the CCP.

This, of course, only offers part of the explanation. Having committed to Zero Covid, to backtrack now would create even more reputational damage for the CCP, emboldening Xi’s enemies within the party, notably a clique around former leader Jiang Zemin. If the CCP was wrong about Covid, many will ask, what else could it be wrong about?

Why then does the CCP not merely massage the numbers? This would not be without precedent, according to several experts. For instance, according to Dr Yi Fuxian of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, although the official 2020 Chinese population was 1.41 billion, he estimates the true population size to be 1.28 billion. Meanwhile, the Brookings Institution think tank estimates that China’s economy is about 12 per cent smaller than officially stated.

Hence, another factor could be at play, and one which relates to the recent defence pact signed between Beijing and the Solomon Islands, as well as the militarisation of several artificial Chinese islands in the South China Sea: China could be stress-testing its society and economy for war.

It is worth noting how important cities like Beijing and Shanghai are to the Chinese economy, and how much the quarantine centres recently set up bear more than a passing resemblance to internment camps or military hospitals. How these major population centres cope under the harshest of conditions would offer enormous insight into how the wider country would fare.

It has long been known that China seeks to ‘retake’ democratic Taiwan, a former Japanese colony off the coast of southern China that became the last redoubt of Mao’s opponent, Chiang Kai-Shek in the civil war of 1927-49. Taiwan is not only economically vital to Western economies due to its role in the global electronics industry but capturing it could allow China to dominate the western Pacific.

Meanwhile, so long as China’s tightly-controlled state media tells the public that Russia is both justified and victorious in Ukraine (a message they are unlikely to deviate from, come what may), pressure will mount to invade the island. If Russia can do what it has in Ukraine – the public may start to ask – then why can’t China bring Taiwan to heel?

In this context measures underway across several Chinese cities, testing the public to its limits – including restricting freedom of movement and food supplies – may be about more than saving face, but about testing how far the Chinese economy and society can be stretched in the event of conflict.

China is already hoarding over half of the world’s grain. This year, China will hold 69% of the world’s maize, 60% of its rice and 51% of its wheat. When coupled with military build-ups and lockdowns, questions should be asked as to why Beijing would feel the need to go to such lengths.

While the Shanghai lockdown got underway, Xi went south to Hainan Island, visiting a seed laboratory developing high-yield plants for enhanced food security, as well as an oceanography institute tasked with observing the South China Sea. Was this simply a coincidence? 

While Beijing no doubt believes the West is unlikely to apply Russia-level sanctions to China – in part, due to the untold economic damage this could do to the West – the fact Chinese regulators recently held a meeting with domestic and foreign banks to discuss protecting their assets may suggest an event which could trigger sanctions is already in the offing. 

Zero Covid may then be about more than saving face but about testing the resolve of the Chinese public. Will the 68-year-old Xi wait until his late seventies or early eighties to close the deal on Taiwan, something he has committed to in public again and again? Time may not be on the West’s side, and given what is currently taking place in Europe, it ought to be wary of any complacency.

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Educated at LSE and Cambridge, and called to the Bar as a double scholar at Lincoln’s Inn, Jonathan Saxty is an entrepreneur with a particular interest in Britain’s long–term geopolitical and economic future.

Image of quarantine at Chinese border by studiostoks from Adobe Stock