Millions of residents forcibly confined to their homes – sometimes even welded inside – even as they are dangerously low on food and other essential goods. Helpline operators helpless to answer pleas for urgent assistance from the injured and the starving. Most recently, an elderly patient dispatched to the local morgue before response teams realize he is still alive.
The horrors facing Shanghai’s population under the inflexibility of China’s “dynamic” zero-covid (动态清零) strategy during a month-long lockdown have been painfully obvious, documented through an outpouring of anger that has spilled onto social media platforms. But despite these failings and their real costs, China’s Communist Party leadership has defended the zero-covid approach.
For more than two years, the CCP has touted the wisdom of its covid response as the most salient proof of the superiority of the Chinese political system. And with the 20th National Congress just around the corner, there is apparently too much on the line for the Party and its charismatic leader, Xi Jinping, to reconsider. Under the invisible rules of power politics, policies may be “dynamic,” but they cannot be flexible.
As the Party has doubled-down on zero-covid, one familiar phrase from the CCP’s revolutionary past has dominated the headlines: “Persistence is victory” (坚持就是胜利).
Persisting in the Revolution
This phrase first emerged in the decade from 1927 to 1937, as the forces of the Chinese Communist Party battled against Kuomintang forces during the Chinese Civil War. “Persistence is victory” was a battle cry used to mobilize fighters in revolutionary base areas. An article in the People’s Daily in 1951 traced the phrase back to 1933, delivered as policy direction to a local communist commander whose forces were surrounded by the enemy.
The phrase continued in use in the early years of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), conveying a sense of resolute progress in the midst of adversity. In an address to the first National People’s Congress in September 1954, one delegate characterized difficulties as a test of the Party as it sought to govern: “Persistence is victory, and with determination we can succeed,” he said (People’s Daily, September 17, 1954).
Use of the phrase rose dramatically during the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976, when it rallied the masses around Mao Zedong’s notion of continuous revolution. In his memoir, published in 2005, Chen Pixian (陈丕显), the revolutionary and former CCP chief in Shanghai who was purged during the Cultural Revolution and later rehabilitated, recalled how he had sought the assistance of top Party leaders in Beijing as the revolutionary fervor spiraled out of control in Shanghai toward the close of 1966. In January 1967, Chen spoke by phone with Tao Zhu (陶铸), then number-four in the central leadership. Tao words were: “Summed up in one line, persistence is victory!”
Chen waited in vain for a reversal of Mao’s decision on the Cultural Revolution, which he had thought would last for only a few months. Within weeks he had been ousted and placed in solitary confinement. “Persistence is victory” became one of the core slogans driving forward the chaos of the Cultural Revolution and the purge of those who opposed Mao’s policies. The mechanics of raw power and violence were couched in the rhetoric of persisting struggle against the foes of communism.
On May 24, 1968, the People’s Daily reported on “mass demonstrations” held in more than 20 Chinese cities to protest crackdowns on civil unrest in France in May 1968. The paper characterized the revolution of the proletariat as an unstoppable force. “True power lies not with the reactionaries, but with the people,” it wrote. “The commanders and combatants of the broad revolutionary masses and the People’s Liberation Army have said that unity is strength, and persistence is victory.”
Persisting in Xi’s Approach
The phrase “persistence is victory,” seldom used in the reform era, reemerged back in mid-March as a means of signaling strict and resolute adherence to Xi Jinping’s zero-covid strategy.
In an official release on March 18, relaying the content of the meeting of the Politburo Standing Committee the day before, Xinhua reported that Xi Jinping had made an “important speech” urging strict adherence to the zero-covid strategy nationwide. The article, which in the People’s Daily bore the headline, “No Pause in the Fight Against the Epidemic, Persistence is Victory,” repeatedly used the word “persistence,” and ended with the soaring line: “In clearing away the fog of the covid epidemic, and promoting economic and social recovery and development, let us join hands in implementing the spirit of General Secretary Xi Jinping’s important speech — persistence is victory!”
By the end of the first week of April residents in Shanghai were running out of food, and anger was boiling over in the city over the pain caused not by the virus but by lockdown policies themselves. But while on an inspection tour of Hainan from April 10-13, Xi Jinping again signaled confidence and resolve in the zero-covid policy.
A wave of use of the slogan “persistence is victory” came on April 14, as a wide range of Party-state media reported on remarks Xi made while on his inspection tour. “Xi Jinping pointed out that right now, as the covid pandemic situation remains serious worldwide, we cannot relax prevention and control work. Persistence is victory,” read the final paragraph of a story published as front-page news in many Party-run regional and national newspapers on April 14.
The phrase featured in seven articles in the People’s Daily in April, as the situation in Shanghai grew increasingly desperate. The most prominent was a page-one appearance on April 15, even as news of elderly deaths and violent quarantine clashes dominated media outside China. “Persistence is Victory,” read the headline of a piece by “this paper’s commentary writer” (本报评论员), indicating that it represented the view of the paper, and likely by extension the consensus view of the CCP’s central leadership.
The commentary argued for the insuperable wisdom of the “dynamic zero” approach in light of China’s vast population and unique circumstances, and said that the decisive control of the virus was “a major matter not to be relaxed” (不可放松的大事). In its opening line the commentary doffed its hat again to Xi Jinping’s remarks during the Hainan tour.
The cry was taken up through April by scores of Party-state media and commercial outlets. On April 21, scores of Party-run media, including such regional Party papers as Hubei Daily, Gansu Daily, Shantou Daily and Shanghai’s Wenhui Daily, all ran a Xinhua news release called “Consolidate the Enterprise Stabilization Trend, Persistence is Victory” (巩固企稳态势, 坚持就是胜利), which reported that the covid situation in Jilin province was stabilizing and that “Shanghai’s epidemic prevention and control has reached a critical stage.” The release said that great efforts were being made to ensure that economic activity continued, noting that “the whole country is scrambling to resume work and production.”
The “Creative Poster Commandos” (创意海报突击队) division of Xinhua News Agency, which emerged in 2020 amidst the rise of the global pandemic to create modern-day propaganda posters amidst the outbreak in Wuhan, produced special posters for the fight against covid in Shanghai making use of the “persistence is victory” slogan.
Even as the situation grew desperate in Shanghai in late April, the official language of persistence with zero-covid continued. A Xinhua release published in the Shenzhen Special Zone Daily on April 24 bore the headline: “Shanghai, Add Oil!” (上海，加油!). The article gave no indication whatsoever of the misery facing Shanghai residents, but ended with absurdly hyperbolic resolve: “Persistence is victory! Only by persisting can there be victory! Persistence will definitely bring victory! Shanghai, add oil!”
The same triad of persistence has persisted into May. In a page-two article yesterday in the People’s Daily, the situation since mid-March was portrayed as evidence of unmitigated success, despite growing and irrepressible discontent in Shanghai.
“Unshakably Persisting in ‘Dynamic Zero’,” read on section header in the article. The conclusion rejected any possibility for a more flexible approach to the spread of covid, even as curbs were stepped up in Beijing, leaving residents on edge over a possible repeat of the dysfunctions that crippled Shanghai. “At present, Shanghai is still in a critical period of continuous attack on the prevention and control of the epidemic,” the article said. “The Shanghai Municipal Party Committee has said it will resolutely implement the spirit of General Secretary Xi Jinping’s important instructions, adhering to the general policy of ‘dynamic zero’ without wavering, making every effort to win the battle of epidemic prevention and control.”
“Persistence is victory! Only by persisting can there be victory! Persistence will definitely bring victory!”