A series of articles in the Chinese Communist Party’s mouthpiece stressing the importance of sticking to the zero-Covid policy were designed to extinguish people’s expectations that a major political gathering would be a turning point for more relaxed controls, observers have said. On Wednesday, for the third day in a row, People’s Daily carried a commentary hammering home the message that strict controls must remain in place. It came as the mounting economic toll and growing public frustration over the stringent measures raised expectations that a relaxing of measures was on the table ahead of the party congress , which begins this Sunday and will set the tone for the country’s development in the next five years and beyond. But observers said a sudden shift after the event would undermine President Xi Jinping’s authority and legacy in leading the country’s efforts to tackle Covid-19, and People’s Daily needed to send out signals to manage such unrealistic expectations in advance. Extreme zero-Covid rules in China ahead of Communist Party congress There is a consensus among the Chinese middle class that zero-Covid is not sustainable, but a major policy shift would be akin to a statement that the policy served a political purpose by ensuring the party congress went smoothly, said Huang Yanzhong, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations in the United States. “It is inconsistent with the publicity that zero-Covid is making people’s health and lives at the top priority,” Huang said. Alfred Wu, an associate professor and assistant dean at the National University of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, said: “The party congress is the occasion to discuss more important party matters than Covid policies, such as changes to the party’s constitution and a personnel reshuffle. “President Xi Jinping has associated himself with the policy so any change in the near future is unlikely.” On Monday, the first People’s Daily commentary on the policy called for people to have more confidence and patience in the policy, which aims to cut all transmission chains. The next day it said the policy is sustainable and must be carried on . In the third instalment on Wednesday, the paper touted the superiority of China’s response to Covid-19 and labelled coexistence with the virus a lost cause. “The global epidemic is still at a high level and the virus is still mutating, which is a profound warning to us that it is not advisable to ‘lie flat’ and it is impossible to [win without effort]”, the commentary said. “Only by sticking to the dynamic zero approach can we minimise the huge losses caused by the out-of-control epidemic.” Chinese officials and state media have repeatedly described any approach that involves trying to live with the virus as “ lying flat ” – a term that originally meant doing the bare minimum to get by. Vaccination key to relaxing Covid-19 controls in China: pandemic expert They have also focused on countries that have seen high death rates and strained healthcare systems after trying to live with the virus rather than examples where countries have seen death rates fall as a result of previous infections and high vaccination rates. “Life expectancy per capita in China rose to 78.2 years in 2021, and all healthcare indicators continued to improve,” the commentary said. “Scientific and powerful epidemic prevention and control has been instrumental in creating such achievements.” It added that the United States saw life expectancy fall for two years in a row as a result of “letting the coronavirus rip”. China has always touted its superiority to the West in handling the virus by virtue of its lower death rate. That argument was repeated in Wednesday’s commentary, which said that other countries were not capable of containing the virus. It also warned that living with the virus would cause more variants to emerge. “Lying flat increases the risk of new mutations emerging. There is uncertainty about the mutation and evolution of Sars-CoV-2 [the virus that causes Covid-19], and the more cases of infection there are, the greater the chance of new variants, while the emergence of new mutant strains may pose new transmission and infection threats,” the commentary read. The commentary admitted that China’s low vaccination rate – only 57 per cent of the total population and 70 per cent of over-60s had been given a booster shot as of last month – will inevitably cause infection of large numbers of people and severe illnesses and death. Inner Mongolia scrambles to stop Covid cases spreading to China’s capital “It will surely strain resources, leave the normal demand for medical services unaddressed and create a vicious circle. In practice, it is precisely because of our insistence on dynamic zero that we have maximised the protection of people’s lives and physical health,” the report said. Regardless of the benefits, local governments are facing a double blow from the cost of regular mass testing and declining tax revenues caused by the zero-Covid policy. Shanghai was only one of China’s provincial level governments not to record a deficit in the first seven months of the year, and some governments have issued warnings about the risk from the growing imbalance between spending and revenue.