China has eased 'zero-Covid' rules in what was seen as a first step toward reopening but cases are spreading as restrictions are loosened. Photo: Screengrab / BBC

Beijing announced on Monday (May 9) a tightening of the capital city’s anti-epidemic rules after the politburo of the Chinese Communist Party (CPC)’s Central Committee reaffirmed the “zero-Covid” policy to contain the epidemic.

However, some perceived mixed messaging by the politburo, which includes 25 political leaders, after it urged the need to stabilize China’s economy and job markets on April 29 while its seven-person standing committee emphasized the importance of stringent Covid rules nearly a week later.

The debate over epidemic control and economic growth has become so fluid that even Hu Xijin, the former editor-in-chief of the Global Times and a veteran political commentator, has failed to keep pace with the Party’s fast-changing lines.

On May 5, Hu removed his latest article, which called for reducing anti-epidemic costs, from his Weibo account after the politburo’s standing committee issued its statement.

Some analysts believe the mixed messaging signals an intra-Party power struggle is underway ahead of the 20th National Congress in November, where President Xi Jinping is vying for a third term.

Some medical experts say Beijing has no choice but to continue its zero-Covid policy as the mainland’s inactivated vaccines, including Sinopharm and Sinovac, cannot protect people from the Omicron variant.

Shanghai has implemented lockdown measures since March 28 and about six million city residents were still unable to leave their homes or villages as of Monday. Between February 26 and May 9, a total of 56,155 positive cases, excluding asymptomatic patients, were identified in China’s largest commercial city while 553 patients died.

A boy undergoes a PCR test in Shanghai on March 13, 2022. Photo: Xinhua

On Monday, 234 infections and 2,780 asymptomatic cases were recorded in Shanghai. Five cases were still reported in the community, meaning that virus transmission cases have not yet been completely cut-off in the city.

As of 3 pm on Tuesday, Beijing reported 59 Covid cases in 24 hours, compared with 50 cases a day earlier. Xu Hejian, a spokesperson of the Beijing municipal government, described the city’s epidemic situation as a “stalemate” and said it was necessary to achieve Covid clearance at the community level as early as possible.

On Monday, Beijing announced eight new anti-epidemic measures to contain the virus. Face-to-face classes are suspended at schools while people who enter restaurants and supermarkets have to show a negative PCR test result within the past 48 hours. Restaurants are not allowed to provide dine-in services. Half of the public sector’s workers have been asked to work from home.

The tightening rules in Beijing were announced after the politburo’s standing committee, chaired by general secretary Xi, held a meeting on May 5 and said China would surely win the war against Covid-19 with its scientific and effective epidemic control policy that would stand the test of time.

As the pandemic is still raging across the world and the coronavirus keeps mutating, there is a great deal of uncertainty concerning how the pandemic will develop, according to the meeting, which warned against any slackening of control efforts.

“Relaxation will undoubtedly lead to massive numbers of infections, critical cases and deaths, seriously impacting economic and social development and people’s lives and health,” the meeting said.

The meeting stressed the importance of unswervingly adhering to the dynamic zero-Covid policy and resolutely fighting any attempts to distort, question or dismiss China’s anti-Covid policy.

The meeting also said as the country’s Covid battles were at a crucial stage, Party committees and governments at all levels had to remain confident and promote the spirit of struggle to build a strong defense against the pandemic.

Prior to this, a politburo meeting, which represents a broader political spectrum than its standing committee, said on April 29 the epidemic had to be prevented, the economy had to be stabilized and social development had to be safe.

It said it was necessary to efficiently coordinate epidemic prevention and control and economic and social development, given that the Omicron variant was highly-infectious.

Chinese President Xi Jinping on a large screen during a cultural performance as part of the celebration of the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party of China on June 28, 2021. Photo: AFP / Noel Celis

The politburo meeting held on April 29 had once given hope to many that China could strike a balance between epidemic control and economic growth, said Yau Ching-yuen, a Taiwan-based, Hong Kong-native political commentator. However, the politburo’s standing committee’s stress on the zero-Covid policy showed that different political factions in the Party had different views on Covid strategies, Yau said.

On May 5, Hu Xijin, the high-profile commentator, posted an article on his Weibo account, saying that he hoped the Beijing municipal government could minimize the impact of its epidemic control work on the local economy. Hu said it was important to cut off virus transmission chains but it would be more meaningful if it was done at low economic costs.

Hu praised Beijing officials for not locking down the Chaoyang district, which had recently reported dozens of cases. He said Beijing residents would accept the reality if the Omicron variant was eventually spread to other districts. But after the Politburo’s standing meeting emphasized the zero-Covid policy, Hu removed his article on the same day.

Tang Jingyuan, a United States-based political commentator, said Hu wrote his article based on the tone of the April 29 politburo meeting and he did not expect that the standing committee would take an opposed position. Tang said the inconsistency of the Party’s official line reflects a power struggle among top leaders over how to handle the situation.

Alex Payette, chief executive of Cercius Group, which specializes in Chinese politics, told the Financial Times in a recent interview that there was definitely a political fight behind the scenes of Shanghai’s lockdown.

Payette claimed Han Zheng, a politburo standing committee member and a potential rival candidate for the premier position, had asked Xi to force his ally Li Qiang, Shanghai’s party secretary, to step down. He said if Xi acquiesced and sacrificed Li, his other allies would also be at risk of politicized purges.

Residents undergo nucleic acid tests for the Covid-19 coronavirus in Xiamen, in China’s eastern Fujian province on September 14, 2021. Photo: AFP

While it remained unclear how China’s political leaders are ultimately deciding the country’s Covid rules, some foreign investors said they were moving out of China or reducing their investments in the country amid the uncertainty.

The European Chamber of Commerce in China said in a survey published on May 5 that three-quarters of respondents were negatively impacted by China’s Covid measures. It said 23% of respondents were now considering shifting current or planned investments out of China to other markets.

Meanwhile, the American Chamber of Commerce in China said Monday that more than half of its surveyed companies had reduced or delayed their investments in the country.

Read: China struggling to win back lost investor confidence

Follow Jeff Pao on Twitter at @jeffpao3