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Did Political Infighting Cause Shanghai’s COVID Chaos?

By Nathan Lee

A fierce battle is taking place in Shanghai.

It started with the fight against the COVID-19 virus, but over the past few weeks, it has turned into a fierce political fight. The careers of a number of officials are at stake. It may even impact Xi Jinping who is seeking an extended term as the top CCP leader.

This article provides observations from the angle of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP’s) logic and internal operations. It offers a possible explanation of what has happened during Shanghai’s COVID control.

Xi Jinping and the Shanghai Faction

The CCP is known for having factions and for its brutal in-fighting. It hides these happenings from the outside so people may not understand the implications or the nuances of what is going on there.

Today, there are four major political groups inside the CCP:

  • Xi and his loyalists
  • The Shanghai faction (people loyal to the former CCP head Jiang Zemin; initially, many have moved up in the ranks in Shanghai, but this faction also includes many people from other places)
  • The Youth League faction (people identified with former CCP head Hu Jintao; usually they have worked in the Communist Youth League organization)
  • The princeling group (the children of the first generation of CCP high-ranking officials)

These factions may fight against or collaborate with each other from time to time, based on their needs. For example, when Xi came to power in 2012, the princeling group supported him unconditionally. In the past few years, however, several princelings have criticized Xi.

The Shanghai faction is the biggest rival to Xi, with the Youth League faction and the princeling group being quiet these days.

The Shanghai faction was formed when Jiang Zemin, then Shanghai Party Secretary, became the CCP General Secretary in 1989 after the CCP’s Tiananmen Massacre. Jiang and this faction managed to keep promoting their people to higher positions. For examples, Shanghai officials Zeng Qinghong (曾庆红), Wu Bangguo (吴邦国), Huang Ju (黄菊), and Hang Zeng (韩正) had all moved to the highest power posts. They became members of the Politburo Standing Committee.

After Jiang handed his top leader titles over to Hu Jintao in 2002, Jiang, through his Shanghai faction, continued to control the power. When Xi took over the titles in 2012, he took down several big officials from the Shanghai faction so that he could assure that he had the power firmly in his own hands. Then the two sides reached a compromise. The Shanghai faction would support Xi for his extended terms. In exchange Xi would stop purging them.

However, Jiang’s faction which had sustained a great political loss under Xi, has continued to sabotage Xi.

For example, Xi recently took down Sun Lijun (孙立军), Vice Minister of Public Security and a Shanghai faction member. One of Sun’s crimes was organizing a small political group. Two of his group members, Deng Huilin (邓恢林), former Chongqing Deputy Mayor and Police Chief and Luo Wenjin (罗文进), a top police officer in Jiangsu Province, “cursed and even plotted to assassinate the main state leader (Xi himself) when he came to a ceremonial event in Nanjing City, Jiangsu Province.” {1}

Xi’s COVID Vulnerability

At the very beginning of the COVID pandemic, Xi associated himself with the COVID fight. At his meeting with the World Health Organization Secretary-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus on January 28, 2020, Xi declared, “I, myself have been directing and arranging (the pandemic prevention and control work) all along.” {2}

The COVID control has thus become a vulnerability for Xi. He can take credit if it is successful but the blame falls on him if it fails.

However, it is hard to win the COVID battle. Many countries started with a lockdown approach but found it was not very effective since they could only enforce it at the cost of taking away their citizens’ rights. They therefore later switched to coexisting with the virus.

The CCP does not care about its citizens’ human rights and thus “succeeds” with the lockdown approach because its use of vigorous people-control mechanisms (see Chinascope’s article: “China’s Zero-COVID Strategy”). Its “Zero-COVID” strategy is composed of vigorous quarantines, community lockdowns, and repeated mandatory COVID testing of all citizens, where, after identifying a COVID case, the authorities force all residents in the vicinity (which can range from a few blocks to a district, or even an entire city) to stay inside their homes for an extended period of time.

China became the first big country to resume factory production. It received a record high number of orders from the world and had a record high trade surplus against the United States. The CCP has boasted its “Zero-COVID” “success” as its “system advantage.”

However, the “Zero-COVID” strategy creates many humanitarian problems. It also disrupts the food supply chain when people have all been locked down. In addition, since most of the people are kept from catching the virus, China will not reach the needed critical mass for community immunity. That means it might face an endless COVID battle.

The coexistence approach, on the other hand, has much fewer problems.

According to a Wall Street Journal report, Xi was open to it and even allowed Shanghai to try it out initially. {3} This happened during a collaborative period between Xi and the Shanghai officials who hoped to maintain Shanghai’s international image and enable economic activities to continue.

There is an innate problem with the coexistence testing in only one city though. When Shanghai residents were allowed to carry the virus, the virus would spread to its neighboring towns in Jiangsu and Zhejiang Provinces due to commuters and shipping. As a result, those towns were ruined and had to lock down since they follow the “Zero-COVID” strategy. To protect themselves, several Jiangsu cities offered monetary rewards to people for reporting Shanghai residents coming to their cities. {4}

Of course, Xi could enlarge the coexistence tryout region to include those towns, but then their adjacent areas would be jeopardized. He could further expand the coexistence region, but the next adjacent areas would be jeopardized. This dilemma always exists unless the coexistence approach is applied to the whole nation. For this reason, there can only be one strategy: either coexistence or “Zero-COVID.”

However, political calculations do not favor the nationwide coexistence strategy for the CCP. This approach shows its power after reaching community immunity, that mean at least 600 million Chinese people need to be infected. Since Chinese vaccines are known to be inferior in preventing COVID and China lacks sufficient medical systems in rural areas and small towns, this can lead to several million deaths. An individual’s tragedy means nothing to the CCP, but a disaster on that massive scale could create a public outcry and shake the CCP’s reign.

Meanwhile, Shanghai’s coexistence tryout didn’t seem to work. It could be due to the omicron variant’s being too quick to spread or due to local officials’ hiding the COVID count (telling lies is common among those in the CCP) and thus not quarantining the infected people. The infection number in Shanghai kept increasing.

Eventually Xi couldn’t bear the number anymore and ordered the city to return to the “Zero-COVID” strategy.

At this point, Xi still wanted to work with the Shanghai faction. On March 27, he promoted a Shanghai local official, Zhugeyujie (诸葛宇杰), to Deputy Party Secretary of Shanghai to help control COVID. On the same day, the Shanghai government announced a half-city lockdown plan: East of Shanghai (Pudong) from March 28 to April 1 and then West of Shanghai (Puxi) from April 1 to April 5.

Political Chaos in Shanghai

Of course the Shanghai officials were unhappy with the lockdown. More importantly, they worried whether they would be blamed for letting COVID get out of control in Shanghai.

Xi’s personal association with the COVID success presented them a unique political option: Instead of working with Xi to get Shanghai COVID under control, they could make the situation considerably worse, thus creating a huge COVID failure and blaming it on Xi and his “Zero-COVID” strategy.

Shanghai’s city administrative structure is arranged in the following ways:

  • Level 1 – City (25 million people): with a rank of CCP Central Committee Politburo member, higher than most of the heads of provinces.
  • Level 2 – 16 Districts (1 million or more people in a district): ranked at the bureau or city level.
  • Level 3 – 215 Subdistrict Administrative Offices (街道办事处), including 107 street (urban) offices and 108 towns or townships: ranked at the division or county level.
  • Level 4 – Community Management Committee (社区管理委员会): ranked at the section level.
  • Level 5 – 4,588 Residential Committees (居民委员会) and 1,558 Village Committees (村民委员会): ranked at the subsection level.

Xi sent his loyalists from other provinces to take over most of the level 1 and level 2 positions. Level 3 is a mix between Xi’s people and the Shanghai faction. Level 4 and 5 have more of Shanghai’s local officials.

The COVID control and supply distribution are organized from the level 3 officials to the level 4 officials, and then to the level 5 officials, who were at the front-line to implement and enforce the lockdown in their buildings, distribute food, and provide other services to the residents.

It seemed that many of Shanghai officials at level 3, 4, or 5 were “lying flat” (a Chinese term symbolizing that they stopped working). Their non-performance also affected and dragged down those who were working hard.

For example, a residential committee head published a resignation letter, stating that he could no longer handle the job due to lack of resources in his office and insufficient support from his upper levels. {5}

A staff member at a residential committee complained on social media, “I have called the town’s hotline for three days but have never reached a person. I also talked to the head of our residential committee who immediately contacted the upper party committee, but there was still no response.” {6}

As a result, many humanitarian problems occurred in Shanghai. Just some examples are that people did not have food for days; babies were separated from their parents and received little care at the quarantine location; and the elderly died because they didn’t receive medical care.

It should not be this way though. The two known “Zero-COVID” problems – the humanitarian crisis and the disruption of the food supply chain – had occurred in many Chinese cities before. Shanghai officials should have created plans to minimize their impact. After all, Shanghai officials were supposed to be the most capable officials in China.

A self-managed residential community at Kangle Residential Committee showed how things could have been done in an appropriate way. After all residential committee members became COVID positive, on March 31, the resident volunteers formed a self-managed association. They set up different groups to order food and medical supplies, receive supplies, distribute supplies, support the elderly, and organize COVID testing. It has been running smoothly ever since. {7}

Ironically, Guangdong Province flew 120 food delivery people to Shanghai. Their job was to separate vegetables into packages for distribution. {8} It was hard to believe that Shanghai couldn’t find local volunteers to do this work. A more reasonable answer would be that the officials in charge didn’t want to take the responsibility.

This made people wonder whether the current Shanghai humanitarian crisis was man-made or at least, whether some local officials intentionally exacerbated it.

A number of newspapers called out the Shanghai officials’ inaction. The Hong Kong newspaper Ming Pao reported that some officials ran away from their jobs or were “lying flat (stopped working).” As a result, the military medical teams had to “take over” some suburban towns since they were not being managed. {9}

Jiefang Daily, owned by the Shanghai Party Committee, told Shanghai officials on April 6, “We have no reason not to be more courageous and to take responsibility, no reason not to do our best to resolve the problems for the public, and no reason to have any more shirking, delays, or dodges.” It said, “This requires managerial cadres at all levels to take charge effectively and to be responsible.” {10}

People’s Daily, the CCP’s central media, published a commentary on April 10 saying, “Any thought of lying flat or waiting or relying on the [central government] or any thought of taking it lightly is greatly irresponsible to the big picture of pandemic prevention and control.” {11}

Consequently, between April 7 and April 9, eight Shanghai local officials were removed for their poor performances in COVID control.

Another observation was that many postings about Shanghai’s humanitarian problems have surfaced on the Internet in the past few weeks. It is a good thing for people to speak out, but from the CCP’s point of view, this might seem abnormal since the CCP usually imposes vigorous Internet censorship. Perhaps Shanghai has loosened its censorship control?

To put Shanghai back in order, Xi sent the people who listened to him to Shanghai. Radio Free Asia reported that, by April 3, 100,000 people, including soldiers, police, and medical teams, from the military and 16 provinces had arrived in Shanghai. {12}

CCTV reported military transporter planes had landed in Shanghai. Some Internet videos showed soldiers at the Shanghai Train Station and at hotels. Female soldiers also came. They might have been sent over for humanitarian services, since Xi has the incentive to end the humanitarian crisis in Shanghai quickly. {13}

A YouTube story provided some insight into how the Shanghai faction worked together. Beicai Town Party Secretary Cai Yongqiang (蔡永强), a level 3 official in Shanghai, received four batches of supplies for people in his town. He only distributed part of the second batch and sold the rest to supermarkets for money. Once his case was exposed, three ministerial level officials called and blocked the Shanghai authorities from taking action against Cai. These three officials, Hainan Provincial Party Secretary Shen Xiaoming (沈晓明), Deputy Minister of CCP Central Propaganda Department Xu Lin (徐麟), and former Hunan Provincial Party Secretary Du Jiahao (杜家毫), all had worked in Shanghai before and had Cai served under them. {14} Xu Lingyi (徐令义), the Deputy Minister of the CCP Central Commission for Discipline Inspection had to come to Shanghai to remove Cai from his post.

The Shanghai Political Battle

The Shanghai chaos seemed to be a result of political in-fighting within the CCP.

The Shanghai faction intentionally created a humanitarian crisis in Shanghai to sabotage Xi Jinping. They probably wanted to create mega events, such as severe humanitarian crises, large scale public protests, or waves of international condemnations, and then dump all the blame on Xi. Depending on the severity of the disasters, they could force Xi into a truce not to punish them; to weaken Xi’s power by stopping his follower Li Qiang, Shanghai party chief, from taking a Politburo Standing Committee member position; or even stop Xi from seeking his next term.

These mega disasters would be at the cost of the people in Shanghai or at the cost of the country. The Shanghai faction does not care. It has inherited the CCP’s gene: caring only for its own interests and completely ignoring the country’s well-being, human rights, or even human lives.

If the disaster got out of control, their political game could even risk that the CCP would be overthrown. Nevertheless, the Shanghai faction still went forward. How could a gangster member take actions to jeopardize his own gang? This is what happened within the CCP. The winner in the CCP’s political in-fighting has always been the boldest, most vicious side. For example, when Mao Zedong was criticized for his “Great Leap Forward” policy that created a huge famine in China in 1958, Mao threatened to take the army to start a civil war. The entire party backed down and joined Mao to denounce the person who just honestly pointed out Mao’s errors. {15}

Furthermore, the Shanghai faction might have calculated that jeopardizing the party would hit Xi’s other vulnerability. Since Xi serves as the party head and wants to protect the party’s unity, he might have no choice but to swallow the bullet and clean up their mess.

So far, this game is proceeding according to the Shanghai faction’s plan. More and more humanitarian crises have been surfacing in Shanghai; France issued a six-point request to the Shanghai government, including not to separate E.U. citizens from their children; {16} the European Union Chamber of Commerce in China urged China’s State Council to revise its COVID policy; {17} and the United States pulled non-emergency staff out of its Shanghai consulate.

Xi has two failures so far in this fight. First, he was unable to intimidate Shanghai officials and get them to follow his orders despite his sending armed police and military soldiers to Shanghai. Second, he was not able to pass the blame on to Shanghai officials. Instead, the 25 million Shanghai residents and overseas media blamed the Shanghai crisis on his “Zero-COVID” strategy instead of on Shanghai officials’ inaction.

Xi’s exit from the Shanghai game is to declare victory of “zero” cases in Shanghai if he manages to get COVID under control to a certain extent. Then he can go back to deal with those who created trouble for him. However, if the overall COVID situation in China gets out of control, he will still bear all the blame.

In essence, Xi carries the CCP banner and thus is accountable for all of the  CCP’s crimes, including the disasters created by the inhumane, people-control-based “Zero-COVID” policy.

The victim is the 25 million Shanghai people. They were just pawns that were played during the CCP’s in-fighting.


1. Radio Free Asia, “Mainland Media Report: Jiangsu Police Officer Planned Assassin against Main Leader,” September 6, 2021.
2. Chinascope, “Leadership: Xi Jinping: I Have Been In Charge All Along,” February 6, 2020.
3. Wall Street Journal, “Shanghai’s Omicron Outbreak Corners Chinese Leader,” April 8, 2022.
4. Chinascope, “Pandemic: Shanghai Partially and Shenzhen Fully Locked Down, Jilin Locked Down the Province,” March 17, 2022.
5. China Youth Daily, “A Shanghai Residential Community Management Head Wanted to Resign, but Residents Kept Him,” April 7, 2022.
6. Epoch Times, “Shanghai Social Work Published Long Articles on COVID Control,” April 11, 2022.
7. Epoch Times, “Shanghai residents took over a paralyzed residential community management,” April 8, 2022.
8. Chinascope, “Pandemic: E.U. Asked Shanghai Government Not to Separate Parents and Children,” April 3, 2022.
9. Ming Pao, “China Commentary: How Xi Jinping View Shanghai Officials,” April 6, 2022.中國/article/20220406/s00013/1649181517314/中國評論-習近平如何評價上海幹部-文-孫嘉業.
10. Jiefang Daily, “Jiefang Commentary: Solving problems for the lower level and for the people,” April 6, 2022.
11. People’s Daily, “People’s Daily Commentary: Only Persevere Can We Win the Victory of Pandemic Prevention and Control,” April 10, 2022.
12. Radio Free Asia, “Shanghai pandemic out of control and armed police from other provinces came to the city,” April 4, 2022.
13. Epoch Times, “Analysis: Shanghai has been under military control; Li Qiang is losing power,” April 8, 2022.
14. YouTube, April 9, 2022.
15. China government website, “Yang Shangkun Talked about Lu Mountain Meeting,” October 13, 2009.
16. Chinascope, “Pandemic: E.U. Asked Shanghai Government Not to Separate Parents and Children,” April 3, 2022.
17. Reuters, “European Chamber urges China in letter to review COVID policy,” April 11, 2022.