As the omicron variant spreads like wildfire across the Western world, Chinese Communist Party officials must be holding their breath.
Figuratively and literally.
The latest COVID-19 variant has shown an impressive ability to infect even those who are double vaccinated and boosted with otherwise proven vaccines. Current indications suggest that China's distinctly mediocre vaccines are unlikely to be effective against it. This poses a major social and economic challenge for Beijing, one that is particularly personal for Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Establishing a very carefully crafted narrative that Xi is the new, nicer, but also bolder Mao Zedong, the Chinese Communist Party presents its chairman and president as a leader of destiny. Xi is the man with all the answers. All Chinese need to do is follow his instructions.
Yet, Xi's confidence is far less certain than Beijing likes to present. In domestic and foreign policy, Xi is increasingly paranoid.
Abroad, Beijing has been surprised and disheartened by the Biden administration's sustaining of the Trump administration's China strategy. China also faces serious challenges to its traditional European political strategy: offering abundant trade in return for a politically obsequious European Union.
Taiwan's growing international prestige and confidence pose another challenge. Xi must make real the Communist Party's dream of a unified China but avoid a humiliating defeat in any war for the island. Xi must also fear that even in conquering victory, he would isolate China from the international community.
The Communist Party's domestic challenges are equally alarming.
Communist China is a land that faces demographic decline, lower-middle-class wage pressures, property inflation, and energy shortages. Xi desperately needs innovation to drive economic growth yet cannot help but fear and restrict those most able to provide it. Xi talks of historic destiny and the party's people-centric purpose but spares no effort to silence those who question the party's moral history and that of its leaders. Xi says he's the democratic servant of the people but corrosively reminds the people that their pursuit of happiness always comes second to the pursuit of party power.
That takes us back to omicron.
While the Western world has sought to balance lockdowns with vaccination programs and a gradual pursuit of herd immunity, the Chinese Communist Party has persisted in pursuing a "zero case" strategy. This strategy involves applying rapid and highly restrictive lockdowns at the moment a single positive COVID-19 case is detected in a particular locale. It also involves extensive border controls and quarantine protocols, all of which mean that China has not been an easy place to live over the past two years (if it ever was).
The costs are clear.
The South China Morning Post notes the fraying impact that Xi's "zero case" strategy has had on relationships, education, socialization, and economic activity. But considering how transmissible omicron is, if the variant gains a foothold in China, even a series of localized but relatively small footholds, Xi's strategy means that unusually aggressive lockdowns will have to follow.
The prospective impact on society and the economy is unlikely to be one that the party enjoys. Polling obviously isn't an issue for the autocratic regime. But protests might be, perhaps not tomorrow or even next year but maybe sooner than we might expect.
Then, what cracks to follow?