Most of Shanghai’s population of 26million is in yet another lockdown in what has been widely deemed a sign China, the world’s second-largest economy, is struggling to make sense of its zero-Covid strategy, which many argue is not sustainable. It has been suggested that it is also a significant distraction from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine for Chinese President Xi Jinping, whose friendship with Russian President Vladimir Putin was described by the two leaders as one with “no limits”.
On the sidelines of the Beijing Winter Olympics, shortly before the full-scale war began on February 24, Jinping and Putin jointly spoke about the strength of their bond in a statement that claimed there were “no ‘forbidden’ areas of cooperation” in their relationship.
Expressing their increasingly common interests in their respective conflicts with the West, they called on NATO and its allies to “abandon the ideologised approaches of the cold war”, and showed support for each other’s stance on Ukraine and Taiwan.
In a show of support to Moscow in a conflict that was back then still diplomatic, China said it “understands and supports the proposals put forward by the Russian Federation on the formation of long-term legally binding security guarantees in Europe”.
Now, more than five weeks into Putin’s war in Ukraine, there has been nothing other than silence from Jinping on the matter.
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According to Rana Mitter, Professor of the History and Politics of Modern China at the University of Oxford, that is because the communist dictator has “far more pressing issues to worry about than war in far-off Ukraine”.
Coronavirus figures in Shanghai — the country’s biggest city and financial capital — hit their highest levels since the early days of the pandemic last weekend.
Authorities’ obsession with eliminating the virus led them to split the mega-city into two, the Huangpu River serving as the dividing point.
The eastern half entered a lockdown on Monday, March 28, and was due to emerge from it on Friday, April 1 to give way to the western side’s turn.
The lockdown of the western side went ahead as planned. However, the eastern side didn’t exit theirs after an extension was announced late on Thursday night.
Prof Mitter said: “While bombs rain down on Mariupol, Covid remains the main story in China. Much of the rest of the world has opened up, including India, but China and Japan remain major outliers.
“Stories of commuters emptying shelves in supermarkets fill the headlines, just as in Britain in spring 2020.”
Writing in UnHerd, he added: “The economic and social turmoil that Covid has brought to China has shaped its reaction to Ukraine.
“It is certainly true that China will seek to strengthen its geopolitical position where it can – as indeed does every other major power. However, right now, any decisions on Ukraine will almost certainly be filtered through a domestic lens first and foremost.”
Chinese authorities said on Friday the city’s daily tally of infections of the highly transmissible Omicron variant that started to spread about a month ago eased for the second day in the row.
It reported 4,144 locally transmitted new asymptomatic cases and 358 symptomatic cases for Thursday, versus corresponding figures of 5,298 and 355 the previous day.
While in lockdown, residents are required to undergo rounds of nucleic acid testing carried out by healthcare workers in hazmat suits, which is the only activity for which they are allowed to cross their doorsteps.
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With people instructed not to leave their homes even to dispose of rubbish or walk their dogs, public transport suspended in most of the city and non-essential like restaurants and shopping malls closed, the Shanghai shut-down has unsurprisingly brought trouble to the economy.
Figures released on Friday showed factory activity in China slumped at the fastest pace in two years in March, while the Caixin/Markit manufacturing purchasing managers’ index (PMI) fell from 50.4 in February to 48.1 in March – the steepest rate of contraction since February 2020.
Meanwhile, Morgan Stanley cut the nation’s economic growth forecast for this year sharply and Citigroup warned of risks to the second-quarter outlook.
Looking at the evident struggles facing the once-again Covid-hit country, Prof Mitten asked: “What will any decision do to the economy? How will it affect the march toward a third term in office for Xi, a decision unprecedented in the modern era but likely to be achieved this autumn at the Party Congress?”
His questions came as the European Union warned Chinese leaders at an EU-China summit on Friday not to help the Kremlin wage war on Ukraine or sidestep Western sanctions.
Supporting Moscow, European Commission head Ursula von der Leyen said, “would lead to a major reputational damage for China here in Europe”.
China offered the EU assurances it would seek peace in Ukraine but said this would be in “its own way” – diverting pressure for a tougher stance towards Russia.