Saving Face: China is not Giving Up its Zero-COVID Policy

While many Western countries have been adopting the living with COVID-19 strategy, China has strangely insisted on controlling and suppressing the pandemic. Deplorably, infection cases do not see a declining trend, while such a strict policy has led to international isolation and jeopardized economic development. Realising that it is insurmountably difficult and extremely costly to completely eliminate the virus, the Chinese government has softened its attitude and adopted the “Dynamic Clearing” or “Dynamic Zero-COVID” (dongtai qing ling) policy. Still, the new policy is just old wine in a new bottle. China continues to maintain aggressive public health measures to eliminate the virus at all costs.


To gain a deeper understanding of this issue, as Chinese officials always say, we need to take China’s “national condition” (guoqing) into account. Thus, we may look into the cultural features of China, especially the emphasis on “face’ (mianzi), to fully understand China’s adherence to the policy.

Face is the self-image formed by evaluating the respect, dignity, reputation, honor, and influence a person has in his social relationships. Arthur Henderson Smith famously suggests that face “is the key to the Chinese spirit”. This exposes that Chinese people are eager to pursue a positive social representation of themselves and seek others’ approval. They are extremely anxious about being embarrassed or ashamed of their own failures in front of others.

Failure of the Zero-COVID Policy

The Chinese government, however, can lose “face” because of their setbacks in utilising the Zero-COVID policy to combat the virus. While China’s hard-hand measures (e.g. lockdown, intensive mass testing, electronic tracing) have seemingly eliminated most Covid-19 cases in the previous outbreaks in some cities, it has struggled in dealing with recent outbreaks in Shanghai.

Pathetically, under the strict Zero-COVID policy, Shanghai, which was once a prosperous metropolis has been under lockdown for months. There was a serious shortage in daily necessities, an outbreak of food crisis, and a denial to access to medical services. One could hardly imagine such problems would occur in an international financial centre.

Moreover, the lockdown in Shanghai caused a huge disruption to business activities, which can jeopardise China’s economy. With Shanghai’s significant importance to China’s economic development, the lockdown can reduce China’s national real GDP by as much as 4% as economists predicted, which further makes China vulnerable to recession under the pandemic.

Such an economic and social cost has led to outrage among the public and shock in the international community. The Shanghai outbreak has also clearly demonstrated the Zero-Covid policy’s adverse effect. Still, China surprisingly shows no incentive to abandon the strict public health policy.

Strong Government vs Internal Opposition

When we consider the issue from the sociological concept of “face”, the puzzle why China adheres to the problematic policy can be solved.

Adopting hard-line approaches in domestic policies and diplomacy, Xi Jinping has been widely viewed as an ambitious and unflappable strongman who seldom backs down. This credibility is important to gain his fellow citizens’ respect and honor, so that Xi can further build his personality cult and tighten his grip on power.

If Xi is abandoning the Zero-Covid policy, he is admitting his short-sightedness in tackling this public health crisis. He can lose the confidence and trust of other citizens and party members, so losing face can threaten his domestic political position. Given that he appears to be a strong leader, he must assure his citizens that he has made a wise move that can save the country from the despair of the pandemic. Therefore, Xi will suppress internal doubt about the Zero-Covid policy and display his authority’s determination in continuing this strict policy.

Western Superiority and External Resistance

Doubt, however, also exists within the international community. The recent failure in coping with the outbreaks is wiping China’s previous success, although Xi’s government often boasts about “the superiority of the Chinese response to the Covid-19 pandemic.” More Western countries and international organisations are now challenging the validity of China’s harsh measures. WHO’s director general, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, even attacked China and accused such policies of not being “sustainable”.

The international community’s challenges have been perceived by the egoistic Chinese citizens and officials as insults, which also causes China to lose face. China has always considered the West’s co-existence strategy to be dangerous and these countries’ handling of the pandemic to be failures, which only threaten people’s lives in the long run. Believing China is not less capable than the West, the Chinese community is eager to justify the effectiveness of their policies and the failure of their Western counterparts’ policies. Therefore, any challenge could prompt China to be even certain in adopting the Zero-Covid strategy. This can be shown by Xi’s recent speech that he had “no intention to turn away from China’s zero-Covid commitment” and he also warned doubters and critics not to question his policy.

Such a firm attitude is making China even more difficult to make a U-turn, especially when Xi’s government looks particularly strong in recent years as discussed. Given this firm attitude, if China’s Zero-COVID policy is facing more setbacks and the West’s co-existence policy is yielding more successes, then China looks even more shortsighted. It becomes even more necessary for the Chinese government to prove its policy’s superiority, so that it will not get teased by its citizens, other countries, or international organisations, and get embrassed. To maintain national pride and gain “face’, the Chinese government therefore must stick to its harsh policies.

Stumbling Block

While the international community has gradually loosened their public health restrictions, the Chinese people’s extraordinarily eager pursuit of “face” has been a stumbling block for China to abandon its Zero-COVID policy. Regardless of the scale of public health crises, the issue of “face” could make China reluctant to revise its public health strategy. Xi’s government is therefore likely to continue to embrace the policy, despite the huge price of economic loss and further isolation.

[Photo by 中国新闻网, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons]

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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