Food shortages, medical negligence and online dissent: The growing cracks in China’s zero-covid campaign – Grid News

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Food shortages, medical negligence and online dissent: The growing cracks in China’s zero-covid campaign

Last week, several districts in Xi’an, a northwestern Chinese city famous for its terracotta warriors, started to reopen after a nearly monthlong lockdown. Local government officials announced that they had reached their goal of zero-covid transmission — on paper, another triumph in China’s two-year campaign to vanquish the virus.


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But Xi’an has paid a price for its success. It was Dec. 22 when the government suddenly thrust the city’s 13 million people into strict lockdown, in which no one could leave their homes. In the following weeks, residents in some districts started running out of food as the government failed to deliver promised groceries. “It looks like I need to eat bland noodles for a few more days just to survive,” one resident wrote on the social media site Weibo. “This is terrible. The Xi’an government is rotten to the core.” The post has since been censored.

Meanwhile, some of the city’s hospitals developed a kind of covid tunnel vision. One blocked a woman who was eight months pregnant from entering for hours because her covid test results had expired. In a video that went viral, she was shown sitting on a stool outside the hospital at night, a pool of blood gathering below her as she waited. Ultimately, her niece wrote a post saying she had miscarried due to the delay. In several other instances, medical staff prevented patients from receiving care, leading to at least one other miscarriage and two deaths.

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The severity of China’s recent campaign against covid extends well beyond Xi’an and takes many forms. In the city of Guangzhou last week, the government ordered residents to get tested if they had received any international mail, saying the parcels could spread the virus. (Health officials outside of China have said it is extremely unlikely for covid to spread via international mail.)

These are just some of the lengths China has taken to ward off covid — almost no matter the cost — as the country faces its most trying test since the initial outbreak in Wuhan. More than 10 cities are experiencing outbreaks of delta or omicron — though caseloads are minuscule next to those in the U.S. and other parts of the world. While most Americans go about their daily lives with minimal restrictions, millions of people in China have been living under some form of severely restrictive lockdown.

Central government officials continue to steadfastly pursue the policy even as the challenges mount. They say China’s healthcare system might otherwise be overwhelmed by a surge in cases — something China has largely avoided since that first outbreak.

“The top policymakers and the general public seem to all agree that they cannot afford to have covid spreading all over the country like wildfire,” Yanzhong Huang, senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations, told Grid.

But how long can China afford to stand by its zero-covid approach? A growing swath of the population is experiencing the sometimes-mundane and sometimes-horrific secondary effects of the policy, and the political costs are mounting as well, as people air frustrations with life under lockdown.

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The Chinese government’s tight grip over society has made zero-covid possible, and party leadership has made its success in beating back the spread of the virus a point of national pride. But by stifling debate about the trade-offs and fixating on the policy as a validation of China’s political system, the party has also made it more difficult to chart any change in course, even as the burden on society rises.

Zero-covid wasn’t supposed to be a long-term strategy

Containment-at-all-costs is not a recent phenomenon for China. Almost from the onset of the pandemic, China’s approach has been as strict as any on earth; and it has without doubt been successful in blunting the toll of the pandemic.

Since the initial lockdown in Wuhan, local governments have followed a familiar playbook of mass testing, contact tracing, border controls and lockdowns after any outbreak — and “outbreak” in China has often been defined as a handful of cases. As for the results of these strict policies, to date China has recorded 106,000 cases and 4,600 deaths. The U.S. figures? Seventy million cases and more than 866,000 dead. Many experts believe China’s death toll is far higher, but even their models estimate that China, with four times the U.S. population, has had a lower death toll than the U.S.

The government has used these results to its political advantage, internally and around the world. “The CCP [Chinese Communist Party]’s strong leadership is the most reliable backbone when a storm hits,” President Xi Jinping said in a domestic speech in September 2020. “The pandemic once again proves the superiority of the socialist system with Chinese characteristics.”

So in many ways, it stands to reason that China would hold fast to zero-covid.

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But the policy was never intended to be a permanent solution. In a June 2020 paper in the Lancet, the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s Emergency Response Strategy Team wrote: “The current strategic goal is to maintain no or minimal indigenous transmission of SARS-CoV-2 until the population is protected through immunization with safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines.” The authors acknowledged that the strategy would be untenable if it continued for too long: “the socioeconomic costs to maintain such a situation are very high and unsustainable in the long term, particularly in view of the high population susceptibility.”

But more than two years after the Wuhan outbreak, China’s leadership, including a small pandemic working group led by Premier Li Keqiang, has yet to budge on the policy. Other global practitioners of zero-covid — most notably Australia and New Zealand — shifted away from their strict campaigns with the arrival of the delta variant, leaving China as one of the few remaining members of the global zero-covid club.

In July, one of China’s top public health experts, Zhang Wenhong, voiced support for a shift in approach. Writing on his personal Weibo account, Zhang said that “what we’ve been through is not the hardest part. What’s harder is finding the wisdom to coexist with the virus in the long run.” Zhang was quickly blasted by nationalist commentators who called the idea “Western”; the notion of coexisting with the virus was dismissed in a commentary from a former health minister in the state-run People’s Daily.

In an October interview, Gao Fu, the head of China’s CDC, said that if China reached an 85 percent rate of vaccination, it could consider opening its borders. China surpassed the 85 percent mark in December; the tight controls have remained in place.

It hasn’t helped that omicron and delta have put the value of China’s domestically produced vaccines in question. Even before the latest variants, studies showed that the Chinese vaccines were less effective than Western mRNA shots, and in a recent study, people who had received two doses of the vaccine produced by China’s Sinovac did not have enough antibodies to protect against omicron. Experts say their homegrown vaccines should still offer some protection against severe illness, but how much remains unclear.


When zero-covid meets its match

Far from easing off the zero-covid strategy, in recent months the Chinese government has doubled down. Following the example of Xi’an, several other cities have gone into full or partial lockdown.

In early January, 20 cases were identified in the region surrounding Yuzhou, a city in central China; the local government ordered more than 1 million people into lockdown. (That same day, New York City recorded 38,000 cases.) A week later, two omicron cases sent Anyang — another city in the same province — and its 5.5 million people into lockdown. No one could leave their homes.

In the northern port city of Tianjin, just a 30-minute high-speed train ride from Beijing, a few hundred cases have been met with lockdowns. Some 50,000 university students have been unable to leave campus for the Lunar New Year holiday.

For all the pain and trauma of these measures, many Chinese people still say they support them. A middle-aged man in Tianjin who ran a produce market before the pandemic spoke with Grid in the midst of the latest outbreak. The man, who asked not to be named, was preparing for his third round of citywide testing. From his perspective, the Tianjin government has managed the outbreak well; he thinks people are largely behind the policy.

“I can’t say it’s 100 percent of people, but more than 98 percent support the policy,” he said. “No one wants to get sick with this virus, and nobody wants to let their family members get sick. So everyone is quite supportive of the government’s work on this front.”

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Government workers arrange plastic bags of groceries in Tianjin, China, during a lockdown on Jan. 12.

Zero tolerance for opposition to zero-covid?

When residents and officials have spoken out about the costs of the zero-covid measures, the government has allowed for some limited debate. But many dissenters have faced censorship, or worse.

The food shortages in Xi’an, as the government struggled to deliver food to millions stuck at home, triggered a flurry of online comments. In one post, a Xi’an resident wrote about an old man in the neighborhood who hadn’t eaten anything in three days: “If the building manager took full responsibility, would this kind of thing happen?”

Christian Göbel, a professor of modern China studies at the University of Vienna, tracked the online discussion. During a five-day period, he found nearly 700 posts on Weibo and the official government complaint message board related to hunger or difficulty receiving food. In one viral video posted on Weibo, community security officers were seen beating a man who had gone out to buy steamed buns because he was hungry.

For Göbel, the lockdowns provide a window into the boundaries of public debate about the pandemic in China. Because most of the online comments were related to local government services, rather than explicitly targeting central government policy, they weren’t immediately censored, he said. “Complaints about public services and the quality of public services are very common, and they’re even encouraged by the central government,” he added.

In some cases, the online criticisms appeared to spur action from local officials. The Xi’an government suspended the two hospitals that failed to care for patients, and two hospital officials were fired. Two city officials from the district with the most food shortage complaints were also dismissed.

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But while some debate is allowed, the government has cracked down on others for simply discussing the lockdown. A number of people in Xi’an were placed under short-term detention for “disturbing public order” by sharing posts online. In one case, a resident posted about a person who had tried to flee the city in an apparent attempt to escape the restrictions; the police accused the resident of spreading false information about the lockdown.

The government also censored Jiang Xue, an independent investigative journalist, who wrote a diary from Xi’an detailing life under the lockdown, in which she described the streets as “still like a wasteland.” At the end of her account, Jiang wrote, paraphrasing a friend who supports the zero-covid policy: “‘We must be willing to make any sacrifice.’ This phrase is fine, but every average person probably should consider, are we the ‘we’, or are we the ‘sacrifice?’”

Jiang’s diary was censored soon after, an echo of the citizen journalists who documented the early days of lockdown in Wuhan. One of those journalists, Zhang Zhan, remains imprisoned and is reportedly in poor health after a hunger strike.

At high levels of the Chinese government, few have publicly questioned the strict measures in any way. One Chinese official with the All-China Federation of Returned Overseas Chinese who criticized the Xi’an lockdown online was accused of spreading “false rumors” and fired.

“Despite all the dissenting voices on the social media,” said the Council on Foreign Relations’ Huang, “we still basically haven’t been seeing public debate on the validity — the effectiveness of this approach at the policy level.”

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No backing down — for now

Even as the zero-covid strategy sparks public backlash, and despite the sheer difficulty of containing delta and omicron, Chinese leaders seem bound to press on and do whatever it takes to keep the “zero” — or a number close to it — at the core of their pandemic policy. The February Olympic Games — to be held in China — are a key factor; the Games present a critical moment for the leadership to showcase once again that its strategy has been a success.

It’s possible that change may come through scientific advances. Chinese pharmaceutical companies are in trials for China’s own mRNA vaccine. If that vaccine proves safe and effective, it could help provide China an off-ramp from the strictures of zero-covid.

In the meantime, the zero-covid way of life — with all its trauma and frustrations — will likely only become more prevalent across the country as omicron spreads, and as local and national leaders engage in what Caixin, a Chinese news outlet, described as “hand-to-hand combat” with the virus in the coming weeks.

At some point, Huang said, something will have to give: “Even more people will be affected negatively by draconian pandemic control measures, the full lockdown, for example. The costs will be exponentially higher; they would probably no longer justify the continuation of this approach.”

  • Lili Pike
    Lili Pike

    China Reporter

    Lili Pike is a China reporter at Grid focused on climate change, technology and U.S.-China relations.