While the Covid-19 pandemic sweeps across the globe, the Zero-Cvoid strategy (i.e., the elimination policy) has been considered the most effective approach to stop the spread of Covid-19 by some non-democratic regimes because such an extreme policy pays off, at least for Xi Jinping and Kim Jong-un, the leaders of China and North Korea. Many countries that adopted Zero-Covid policies (e.g., South Korea, Taiwan, New Zealand, etc.) were forced to lift stringent measures due to mounting pressure from increasing cases and economic challenges during the Delta period or the Omicron period. However, leaderships in both China and North Korea still see it as the ultimate panacea in fighting the pandemic to bolster their performance legitimacy for continuing another term in office.
A series of Omicron outbreaks of Covid-19 have challenged the ruling regimes of China and North Korea in 2022; this year also marks ten years since Xi Jinping and Kim Jong-un have become the party and military leaders of their regimes. In 2021, the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK), the ruling party of North Korea, elected Kim as the general secretary of WPK (the supreme leader of the Communist Party), noting the beginning of his third term with a huge success in combating the Covid-19 pandemic between 2020 and 2021 claimed by Kim himself. In China, Xi abolished the two-term limit on the presidency in 2018 and will be expected to serve as the general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) for five more years after the 20th National Congress of the CCP in late 2022. In contrast, uncertainty still exists for Xi to obtain another term in power due to social and economic crises at home, tensions with foreign countries (e.g., the United States and India), and the challenges arising from continuous Covid-19 outbreaks.
China, the first country to report a Covid-19 outbreak, has set an impossible goal—zero Covid cases—to achieve during the war with Covid-19. Since March 2022, the Chinese government has employed elimination measures, including strict lockdown and mass testing, in response to new waves of Omicron outbreaks in Shanghai, Beijing, and other major cities. Regardless of the criticisms of censorship, human rights violations, and economic challenges, Xi Jinping has reiterated that the Zero-Covid strategy is the only means to minimize the loss of life and get back to normal. Namely, the goal of Zero-Covid should be achieved at all costs in China. In Shanghai, the financial center of China, residents could not receive the necessary food and medical treatments in forced quarantine, resulting in contentions online and offline as well as deaths due to non-Covid medical delays during the nearly three months lockdown. Even though the Covid cases have been mitigated in Shanghai and Beijing, the Zero-Covid policy continues as new outbreaks in other cities, for instance, Sanya, a popular tourist destination of Hainan Province, surface.
Meanwhile, North Korea has entirely insisted that it does not have any cases of Covid-19, until May of 2022, when the North Korean government confirmed millions of cases of the virus. Despite this outbreak, Kim Jong-un and other powerful North Korean leaders stand by the goal of the Zero-Covid strategy, following China’s plan to combat the virus, and have been working at great lengths to eliminate the virus from their population completely through extreme measures, regardless of the consequences. For example, North Korea has stopped traffic between cities, but still urges citizens to work within their counties. Furthermore, North Korea has limited testing supplies, and still has declined millions of vaccines offered to them, despite the dire conditions many citizens are in. On August 11, Kim Jong-un announced a victory in the battle against the Covid-19 pandemic due to maintaining “zero cases” for almost two weeks and decided to lift stringent measures imposed in May. Still, the real reason behind the victory might be that North Korea does not have the resources to maintain such extreme measures.
The achievements of the Covid response measures claimed by North Korea have not persuaded the international society that Covid-19 was eliminated domestically. Yet, the skepticism by the West did not stop leaders in North Korea or China from continuing to implement the Zero-Covid policy because the masses at home are the main target audience for them to appeal to. For the leaderships of China and North Korea, successfully handling the outbreaks of Covid-19 by pursuing a Zero-Covid policy embeds political messages for the masses and potential challengers that only incumbents can lead the country and survive crises. Specifically, insisting on a Zero-Covid policy strengthens performance legitimacy because it places trust in the ruling regime by both citizens in China and North Korea. Therefore, maintaining a dictator’s grip on power, rather than the concern for human rights or people’s livelihoods, may explain a series of developments resulting from adopting the Zero-Covid strategy in both countries.
North Korea has claimed that Covid-19 has been eradicated before and after the onset of Kim Jong-un’s next term, but risks are looming before Xi Jinping’s potential third term. Recently, Xi stressed that China has maintained relatively better economic performance than other countries in the first half of 2022, especially with the lowest infection rate and death tolls among all major powers worldwide. In reality, the ruthless Covid-19 policy has massively impacted business activities and consumer spending, and it has also worsened youth unemployment. The economic problems are difficult to be addressed if the Chinese government decides to continue embracing the Zero-Covid strategy. Kim has partially benefited from Zero-Covid, but Xi’s performance legitimacy might have been undermined by the staggering economy owing to China’s persistence in Zero-Covid policies, disadvantaging his goal to stay in power.
The author thanks Wei-Cheng Tsai, a Ph.D. student in public health at Tulane University, for excellent research assistance.
Jules Hanisee is an undergraduate student at Tulane University studying Political Science and Philosophy. They are most interested in examining the effects of authoritarian behaviors and attitudes on states, as well as looking at the causes of the growth and downfall of authoritarianism over time.
Lin (Kirin) PU is a Ph.D. student in Political Science at Tulane University and focusing on issues related to authoritarian diffusion, digital authoritarianism, and Chinese influence. He had worked for the Institute for National Defense and Security Research (INDSR) and National Security Council, Taiwan. Pu is also a member of the Formosan Association for Public Affairs (FAPA).