Since early May, when Xi Jinping said during a meeting of the Politburo Standing Committee (PSC) that China must “persist” in its “dynamic zero” (动态清零) policy toward the containment of Covid-19, the message has remained clear – stream-rolling over criticism of the painful impact the approach has had on the lives of individuals, families, residential compounds and entire cities.
“Dynamic zero” is here to stay. State media have argued consistently that the policy not only cuts viral transmission in the shortest time possible domestically, but also that it has “brought tangible benefits to the whole world.” This despite the fact that lockdowns have persisted in waves in cities like Shanghai, with a broad and undeniable impact on local businesses and government finances that will have a ripple effect globally.
This week, as state media pundits stretched for justifications of a policy that has continued to draw domestic and international criticism, one commentator called up a rhetorical ghost from China’s Maoist past: “policy of greater benevolence” (大仁政).
What does this phrase mean?
The Long and the Short
This “policy of greater benevolence” notion was first raised by Mao Zedong in September 1953 during a speech about China’s “victory” in the Korea War that also addressed the war’s human and financial costs. A stalemate had been reached that summer, and the Korean Armistice Agreement signed in July. But there were apparently grumblings in China about hefty taxes on agricultural production. “Certain friends,” said Mao, “had spoken.”
Mao went on to explain to his fellow Party leaders that these “certain friends” had spoken of the need to implement benevolent policies (施仁政) – “as though,” he said snidely, “they represent the interests of the peasants.” On the question of benevolent policies, he explained, this was already being done.
But what is the greatest benevolence? It is the resistance to the United States. To implement this policy of greatest benevolence, there must be sacrifice, and this means using money, and it means collecting more agricultural taxes. You collect more agricultural taxes and some people cry out, and say this stuff about how they are representing the interests of farmers. I do not agree with this opinion.
In a nutshell, achieving longer-term strategic goals required sacrifice, and sometimes this sacrifice was painful. Nevertheless, the policies necessary to achieve these goals, however they might lead to short-term misfortune, could be considered benevolent. Mao then outlined for the first time his view on the two types of benevolence in policy-making:
There are two kinds of benevolent policies: one is for the current interests of the people, and the other is for the long-term interests of the people, such as fighting against the United States and building heavy industries. The former kind is a policy of lesser benevolence, and the latter is a policy of greater benevolence.
Mao’s logic of the “greater benevolence” was a sledgehammer to pulverize all dissent over the pain caused by his policies. In the pursuit of long-term vision – always the exclusive prerogative of the visionary leader – all short-term costs could be justified as being in the interests of the people. Why should we concern ourselves with “policies of lesser benevolence” (小仁政) when we can cast our vision to the future, to “policies of greater benevolence” (大仁政)?
On June 15, 2022, “CAC China” (网信中国), the official WeChat public account of the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC), ran a commentary bearing the byline “Wang Xingping” (王兴平) that again defended “dynamic zero.” Even as the piece acknowledged that the policy remains a “hot topic” on social media platforms, where Chinese have vented plenty of homegrown outrage, it could not resist denouncing “those with ulterior motives in America and the West” who have dared to question its wisdom.
The “CAC China” post was re-posted at People’s Daily Online and scores of other websites, both party-state and private.
After affirming the “entire correctness” of the Covid policies implemented by the CCP “with Comrade Xi Jinping as the core,” the commentary explained the legitimacy of the “dynamic zero” using the language of benevolent policymaking first introduced by Mao Zedong (a leader Xi has been at pains to emulate):
Comrade Mao Zedong profoundly described the principle of the ‘small benevolent policy’ and the ‘great benevolent policy’ at the 24th Conference of the Central People’s Government [in 1953], emphasizing that there are two types of benevolent policymaking. One is to about the immediate interests of the people, and the other is about the long-term interests of the people. The former is ‘policy of lesser benevolence,’ and the latter is ‘policy of great benevolence.’ The two must be balanced, and to not balance them is wrong. So where should the priority be? The priority should be on the policy of greater benevolence.
China’s epidemic prevention and control approach, said the commentary, was “at present a matter of the overall situation and the long-term” – “a ‘policy of greater benevolence’ for the fundamental interests of the people.”
It is worth noting that Mao’s sledgehammer of benevolent policymaking has not been seen in China’s official discourse for a very, very long time. The last time it appeared in the People’s Daily, in fact, was an article on May 19, 1977, on the study of The Collected Works of Mao Zedong.
When it comes to justifying persistence in China’s current Covid-19 policies, the CCP is really scraping the bottom of the discourse barrel.