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Clara Ferreira Marques

Xi Is Caught in a Policy Trap He Set for Himself

China must refine strict pandemic curbs, but infection rates are growing along with angry protests. It won’t be the last test of Beijing’s ability to adjust.

We’re from the government, and we're here to help.

We’re from the government, and we're here to help.

Photographer: Bloomberg

In chess, when a move is necessary but every option makes the situation worse, players are said to be in zugzwang. Chinese leader Xi Jinping — juggling purported efforts to ease pandemic measures, surging Covid infections and inadequate vaccination rates, plus angry protests, a faltering economy and an approaching winter — appears to find himself in political zugzwang.

Extracting the world’s most populous nation and the second-largest economy from Covid Zero after three years is both possible and necessary, but it’s also a test of the government’s flexibility and responsiveness, and China isn’t passing with flying colors. That should worry, as Beijing’s ability to reset public health policies will also be a crucial indication of how well an increasingly tightly controlled and centralized system will unpick other tangles — social, economic, environmental or geopolitical — that require just such pragmatism.