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Customers look through empty shelves at a supermarket in Shanghai, China. Customers look through empty shelves at a supermarket in Shanghai, China, March 30, 2022 (AP photo by Chen Si).

Shanghai’s Lockdown Puts China’s ‘Zero-COVID’ Policy in a Dystopian Light

Wednesday, April 13, 2022

Shanghai is gradually easing the draconian lockdown it implemented since late March following the largest nationwide outbreak of the coronavirus since the pandemic began. The extended shutdown led to widespread shortages of food and supplies across China, triggering an uproar against the country’s “Zero-COVID” policy. But with the number of daily infections topping 20,000 this week and the virus spreading to other provinces across the country, China is far from out of the woods.

The two-phase lockdown was originally supposed to last four days each for Pudong and then Puxi, which comprise the city on either side of the Huangpu River. But it has now entered its third week, as the city of 25 million people continues to grapple with new outbreaks. In some city districts, many residents have been restricted to their homes for more than a month. Unable to venture outside to buy food, many households have turned for help to WeChat groups, where volunteers have begun purchasing food supplies in bulk quantities and organizing home deliveries. Many others made their grievances heard by staging protests  and screaming out of their open windows at night. Even Kathy Xu, a top venture capitalist in China with major investments in grocery store chains, was forced to scramble online to buy bread and milk.

Prior to the lockdown, Shanghai authorities had been given some leeway by Beijing to pursue a pandemic response that would minimize disruptions, in the hope of providing a blueprint for other cities and provinces to follow and finding a pathway out of China’s total eradication approach. With neighboring Taiwan also shifting toward mitigation, China remains the only major country aiming to eliminate the virus, despite the high cost to its economy and society. But the ongoing crisis in one of China’s wealthiest cities highlights the difficulty of finding an off-ramp from its policy.


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“Xi is boxed in,” Minxin Pei, a professor of political science at Claremont McKenna College, told The Wall Street Journal, referring to Chinese President Xi Jinping, who is expected to secure an unprecedented third term as the country’s leader later this year. “Changing the Zero-COVID policy now would raise more questions about his leadership. It’s politically untenable.”

To address the mounting frustration, Shanghai authorities have been making slight adjustments to the lockdown measures. Last week, the city lifted a controversial policy that separated children who tested positive for the coronavirus from their parents, after clips surfaced online of bawling infants and toddlers at medical facilities, sparking public outcry. This week, Shanghai authorities also introduced a three-tier disease control system that allows city residents access to local neighborhoods where there have been no recorded coronavirus cases for at least two weeks. But for many others, there remains no end in sight to the lockdown. Infected patients, symptomatic and asymptomatic alike, continue to be whisked away to centralized quarantine locations, while neighborhoods that register any new cases  must reinstate lockdown measures for another two weeks.

“The recent fine-tuning is an indication that the country is experimenting with a less costly—and thus more sustainable—zero-COVID approach,” Xu Tianchen, an economist specializing on China at The Economist Intelligence Unit, told Nikkei Asia.

For China, there is another reason for caution. Beijing has repeatedly cited its remarkably low number of deaths—8,886 as of Wednesday—as evidence of the superiority of its approach. However, 52 million people over the age of 60, including half of all people 80 years or older, have not been fully vaccinated, as the National Health Commission revealed last month. This figure puts the country at risk of repeating the pattern of Hong Kong, where large pockets of unvaccinated elderly people have contributed to the recorded COVID-19 death rates. A community outbreak among the elderly population could also overwhelm the public health care system, similar to what occurred in Wuhan during the early onset of the pandemic.

So far, Shanghai has not reported a single death from the new wave of the coronavirus, despite more than 130,000 infections since it broke out in March. This is partly due to the early detection of cases through mass testing and the attribution of fatalities to other chronic illnesses and underlying conditions. But reports of outbreaks at elderly care hospitals and interviews with staff on the ground suggest that the death toll far exceeds the official figures provided by authorities.

With these concerns in mind, a larger shift in policy remains out of the question, as Chinese officials have already indicated. Speaking on Friday, Wu Zunyou, the chief epidemiologist at the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said that the country must adhere to its “dynamic Zero-COVID approach” which is “still the most economical and effective strategy.”

“With the political stakes so high, the tremendous cost associated with the policy becomes a secondary concern, and zero-Covid becomes a by-all-means and at-all-cost approach,” Yanzhong Huang, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote in CNN.

“Unless the top leadership changes its zero-Covid mentality, the policy is here to stay,” he added.

In Other News

John Lee, the former security chief who led the crackdown against the pro-democracy protests in 2019, has emerged as the only candidate running in Hong Kong’s upcoming chief executive election. A “patriots only” election committee with 1,500 members is expected to back him in the vote on May 8. Beijing’s choice of a candidate with little experience in business and economic management indicates its priorities, namely the predominance of law and order over financial recovery.

In the meantime, the city’s crackdown on dissent continues. Six people were arrested last week on suspicion of “causing nuisance” during court hearings for having clapped in a courtroom. They now face charges of sedition. “The Hong Kong authorities’ grotesquely disproportionate response to a small and peaceful act of defiance shows how they will stop at nothing to root out even the faintest murmurings of dissent,” Amnesty International wrote. This week, Allan Au, a prominent journalist, was arrested by national security police for allegedly conspiring to publish “seditious materials,” dealing yet another blow to Hong Kong’s dwindling press freedoms.

Worth a Read

Chao Deng of The Wall Street Journal wrote about Ovalbek Turdakun, an ethnic Kyrgyz who made a rare escape from China’s crackdown on ethnic minorities in the Xinjiang region and arrived in the U.S. with his wife and 12-year-old son last week. The 43-year-old spent 10 months in an internment camp, where he was subjected to political indoctrination and injected with an unknown substance that caused diarrhea, vomiting and numbness in his limbs. His case underscores the difficulty facing former Xinjiang detainees in finding their way to safety, as the reach of China’s security agencies increasingly extends beyond its borders and into Central Asia and parts of the Middle East.

China Note-Taker is writing anonymously for reasons of personal security.

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