The Ascension beckoned Li Qiang.
The senior Shanghai official appeared months away from securing one of seven positions on the Politburo Standing Committee, China’s most influential political body, as his longtime boss Xi Jinping geared up to get a third term in office in November.
Yet in China’s most modern and one of the best-run cities, weeks of brutal shutdowns have turned into a surreal crisis, with signs that faith in the Communist Party’s ability to govern has eroded.
Fears of families being torn apart under a draconian quarantine system have combined with a torrent of bureaucratic nonsense and growing dissent: a body mistakenly stuffed into a body bag while the person was still alive; heaps of undelivered food rotting outside apartments even as people feared they would go hungry as they struggled to get basic necessities; the neat staging of nighttime protests, with residents singing or banging pots, and rare clashes between citizens and police.
With many 25 Minute City residents blaming their enforced isolation on Xi and his zero Covid policy, the future of Li and other top lieutenants hangs in the balance as pressure mounts on Beijing to find a scapegoat for chaos and embarrassment.
The question hanging over Xi is what to do with Li, a close ally for two decades after the pair worked together in Zhejiang in the early 2000s, and Shanghai Mayor Gong Zheng. The decision will ripple through the party and return an unwanted spotlight to covert infighting as a group of aspiring executives vie for coveted top government posts.
“More and more voices are rising in Shanghai and inside the party, especially from [vice-premier] Han Zheng, asking Xi to force Li to resign,” said Alex Payette, chief executive of Cercius Group, a consultancy specializing in elite Chinese politics. Han is a member of the Politburo Standing Committee and is seen as a rival to Shanghai’s party secretary to replace Li Keqiang as premier next year.
Payette believes ousting Li would cause “an earthquake” within the party, disrupting a delicate system of alliances just before a two-decade party congress in November, when Xi’s third term is expected to be secured and the new composition of the political bureau unveiled.
“If Xi were to sacrifice Li, the message sent to his other allies [and current politburo members] like Chen Min’er, Ding Xuexiang and Cai Qi is that no one is safe and untouchable. . . We expect Xi to negotiate with other factions within the party to keep Li in play, despite the ongoing fiasco in Shanghai – although the same cannot be said for Gong,” Payette added.
Victor Shih, a professor of Chinese political economy at the University of California, San Diego, said protection for the city’s leaders could come not only from close ties to Xi, but also from the fact that the Chinese leader is obscured by the real fallout from his zero-Covid policy.
“We don’t know to what extent Xi Jinping sees the full extent of the containment policies in Shanghai; if he knows a lot of people are going hungry,” he said. “We don’t know what kinds of information Shanghai provides to the central government. He is surrounded by private secretaries who filter information for him before it lands on his desk.
Cercius analysts also noted that while former Hubei Party Secretary Jiang Chaoliang and former Wuhan Party Secretary Ma Guoqiang were removed from their posts during the first coronavirus outbreak there are two years, the two men “survived”. No investigation by the party’s internal discipline unit was launched and they were not expelled from the party.
Yet, Payette said, as calls for accountability mount, political pressure could mean Li doesn’t follow his predecessors in moving from Shanghai to the Politburo Standing Committee and instead is “appointed elsewhere in the party’s central apparatus.” “.
China’s return to city-wide lockdowns in response to the spread of the Omicron variant of the coronavirus has caused massive damage to the world’s second-largest economy. The measures have stifled domestic and international supply chains and triggered a series of stimulus measures as hopes of achieving 5.5% growth this year – its lowest target in 30 years fade.
But Xi refused to go back on the zero Covid policy. A stunning report from a meeting of the politburo standing committee chaired by the president on Thursday warned against “any slackening of control efforts” and stressed the importance of “resolutely combating any attempt to distort, question or reject China’s anti-Covid policy.”
Although frustrated with local authorities, many in Shanghai, however, ultimately blame the central government in Beijing for the hardships they are enduring.
“Shanghai government officials were consistent at first,” said a Shanghainese woman in her 40s, who asked not to be named out of fear for her safety. “They didn’t want to do a strict lockdown because the economic price is so high. What they said and did was consistent. The strict lockdown was imposed by the central government.
She added that the realities of life under lockdown had led a generation of young people – who had grown up during a period of prosperity – to begin to reassess the wisdom of China’s political system. “Attitudes towards the Chinese government have changed,” she said.
Diana Fu, an expert on China’s domestic politics at the Brookings Institution think tank, notes that from Imperial China through the Xi era, a leader’s legitimacy has always been based on the provision of social goods.
“The party’s contract with society is based on guaranteeing not political rights but social rights – basic food, housing and health care to the people… Digital publications on the famine in one of the most China’s prosperous countries – Shanghai – are in fact ringing alarm bells that the party-state is not living up to its part of the social contract,” she said.