The southwestern city of Chongqing was the latest front line of Xi Jinping’s "zero-COVID" war, until it came to epitomize China’s potentially devastating about-face that has cracked the Communist Party’s edifice of absolute control.

The city last month was enduring one of the biggest outbreaks cropping up across China, when the national leader, Xi, ordered officials to continue mass testing, lockdowns and quarantines. Chen Min’er, the Chongqing party secretary, devoutly complied, closing off neighborhoods and ordering the instant construction of a quarantine hospital designed to hold up to 21,000 beds.

"Be resolute in fighting and winning this war of annihilation against the pandemic,” Chen, a protege of Xi, told officials on Nov. 27. "Not a day of delay.”