aytalina/Pixabay This is not the first time in history when China surprises by implementing a policy different from the officially declared one. For the last 40 years, they have been following the “socialist path” and building “socialism with Chinese characteristics” while introducing elements of the capitalist system – although of course “with Chinese characteristics”. It is an expression of the Asian blending of contradictions.
The new opening of China and the end of “zero-COVID” is certainly a surprise. This policy was the brainchild of leader Xi Jinping himself, who took full power in the country last year and eliminated all opponents in the party leadership, so the 180-degree turn of this policy is surprising. However, it was decided that it was time to return to normal. Chinese Vice Premier Liu He recently announced at the World Economic Forum in Davos that “China is coming back” and “will continue to open up and support private business” and that “China’s economy will get back on track despite low growth in 2022.” According to Chinese data, the country’s GDP increased in 2022 by only 3 percent. Excluding the 2020 growth figures (2.2%), this was the weakest growth rate in half a century. Although it was still better than the World Bank’s forecast of growth of 2.7 percent. Despite the closure of almost the entire country last year and geopolitical tensions, China’s trade surplus also increased to a record $877.6 billion in 2022, according to data from the Chinese Customs Office. Exports increased despite weakening demand in the US and Europe and the “zero-COVID” policy, during which almost 400 million Chinese were in full lockdown at the peak in late March and early April!
At the end of last year, mass protests against the “zero-COVID” policy took place in China. They were held all over the country, in the largest cities, with the participation of tens of thousands of (mostly young) people, which in the Chinese reality was a situation unprecedented for years. There were also individual voices criticizing the authorities, which was also a novelty. It is true that protests regularly break out in China from time to time, but they are mainly economic in nature, related to ongoing investments, expropriations or abuses by local officials. This time, however, it looked like something more. As a result, the policy of the Chinese authorities has been turned 180 degrees. Conspiracy theorists even say that the protests may have been inspired by the authorities themselves, who were looking for an excuse to move away from “zero-COVID” without losing face. How to explain to people the last three years of keeping the country in lockdown and the sudden complete departure from this policy. And the pressure of the young and, importantly, mostly nationalist and not anti-government people who did not want to stay at home any longer, could have been a convenient justification for changing the course, which even among the Chinese elites had its opponents, although after Xi Jinping dominated power, there was little influential and muted. Unfortunately, as can be seen from the reports from China, the sheltered Chinese society bears the cost of not acquiring immunity, resulting in a huge number of deaths, especially of elderly people with comorbidities. Chinese authorities talk about the end of the peak wave of COVID-19 and about 80 percent of the population are already ill. population. The test will be the New Year, which began in China on January 22, because it is a time of many days of celebration, holidays and movement of hundreds of millions of people traveling to their families. The effect of the opening is that from January 8, Chinese people can freely travel abroad, and tourists can come to China (only a negative COVID-19 test taken 48 hours before arrival is necessary). All quarantine and the need for isolation have been abolished. The Chinese, hungry for travel, rushed into the world. However, not everyone is waiting for them with open arms. Some Western countries, Australia, India and Japan have introduced restrictions for travelers from this country.
China also has other problems that have been growing for many years and have been talked about for a long time. The country’s population – according to national data – has decreased for the first time in 60 years, and the birth rate has reached a record low of 6.77 births per 1,000 people. China’s population (about 1.41 billion at the end of 2022) has decreased by about 850,000 since 2021. The birth rate has been declining there for years, which forces the country’s authorities to try to slow down this trend. Seven years after the one-child policy was lifted, China’s demographics have entered what one official described as “an era of negative population growth.” For comparison – Poland recorded 8.7 births per 1,000 inhabitants in 2021, the United States – 11.06, and the United Kingdom – 10.08. The birth rate in the same year in India, which has probably already overtaken China in terms of population and is the most populous country in the world, was 16.42.
A change of approach to Russia?
Will the new opening be followed by changes in the country’s foreign policy? Certain symptoms for astute observers are visible, for example, in the removal of politicians responsible for the implementation of the so-called “wolf diplomacy”, i.e. the offensive communication policy of Chinese diplomats in the media, reacting to “unfriendly to China” comments in the West. According to many experts, this action brought China more harm than good. Some media outlets, such as the British daily Financial Times, citing sources in Beijing, even write that the country plans to improve relations with the West, and in particular with Europe, and to distance itself from Russia, which allegedly misled China about its actions before the invasion in Ukraine. As proof of the change in the diplomatic vector, the newspaper cites the increased number of visits by Western leaders to China. After the November meetings in Beijing of German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and European Council President Charles Michel, visits by French President Emmanuel Macron and Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni are expected. For the time being, as Financial Times sources point out, China sees the possibility that Russia will not be able to win the conflict with Ukraine and will emerge from it as “an economically and diplomatically weakened power in the international arena.” Several Chinese officials told the newspaper that a growing distrust of the Russian president was felt against the backdrop of ongoing events.
However, no restrictions should be expected in economic and political Sino-Russian relations (Beijing has distanced itself militarily from Russia’s support from the very beginning), which are of strategic importance for China in the context of, above all, energy and relations with the United States. There is also no talk of a possible long-term détente in China-US relations. For both of these countries, the point of reference in strategic decisions is the adversary. This rivalry is structural and systemic.