“Food, not NAT (nucleic acid test); Freedom, not lockdown; Dignity, not lies;
Reform, not cultural revolution; Vote, not leaders; Be citizens, not slaves.”
—— The Left Banner on the Sitong Bridge.
Three days before the Chinese Communist Party’s 20th congress convened, a 48-year-old man draped protest banners with messages visible from Beijing’s Sitong Bridge, one of the city’s busiest roads. The sign urged the end of the Zero-Covid policy and the removal of the dictator. The government has banned virtually all references to reports of this protest. An increasing number of Chinese students at Western universities have echoed the Sitong Bridge banners.
It is rare to protest openly at such a sensitive time, but resentment over Covid-19 policies is growing.
Anger and criticism erupted after at least 27 people died on September 19th when a bus crashed in southwest China’s Guizhou Province while transporting them to a quarantine facility. Thousands of censored comments were saved on Freeweibo, revealing the outrage caused by a policy that forces ordinary citizens into lengthy lockdowns and daily PCR testing at the cost of disrupting people’s daily lives.
Posts from Weibo:
“27 people who did not die in the Covid-19, but died in the bus accident [on the way to] quarantine? “
“Can post-COVID conditions be as horrible as dying halfway on a bus? Can it be as horrible as being imprisoned in a square cabin and starving to death? Can it be as horrible as having the family pet beaten to death by a mob?”
“We are all on the bus leading to death.”
To some, the harms of the Covid policy extend far beyond irritation, powerlessness, and despair. As a result of China’s stringent and prolonged control measures, such as mandatory quarantines, school closures, and unexpected stay-at-home orders, the mental health status of residents has worsened. In a national survey conducted in 2020, 35 percent of 52,000 respondents reported they had panic and anxiety disorders, depression, anxiety, and other mental health problems. In 2022, as the government intensified its Zero-Covid measures, the situation has deteriorated. Searches for “psychological counseling” on Baidu (the most used search engine in China) increased by 253% during the first month of the lockdown. In April, more than 1,000 people lined up outside the Shanghai Mental Health Center after some neighborhoods loosened restrictions. As Julie Geng, a 25-year-old investment analyst in Shanghai, said during an interview,
“I feel there is no basic guarantee in life, and so much could change overnight. It makes me feel very fragile.”
China has every reason to formulate an exit strategy from the Zero-Covid policy, and traces of this can be found. Per Bloomberg, officials were considering shortening the quarantine period to two days in a hotel and five days at home during the 20th Party Congress. In an announcement on October 19, China Eastern Airlines, one of China’s three major airlines, stated the return of several international flights. On November 6, 30,000 runners would be able to run 26 miles (42 kilometers) through the capital, race organizers said on October 2. However, these ideas have not reflected the full picture of the Covid policy in China.
Since October 10th, the People’s Daily has published three op-eds reaffirming China’s Zero-Covid policy. Under the alias Zhong Yin, the op-eds are all believed to reflect the policy direction of the central government. Three articles respectively call for more “faith and patience” in the current Covid policy, asserting that its sustainability must be maintained and condemning complacency or “lying flat” to the virus.
Xi Jinping’s speech at the Party Congress further shattered any hopes that the Zero-Covid policy would be rolled back quickly. While making no mention of how the stringent measures were holding back economic growth and frustrating residents, he emphasized the party “adheres to people first and life first, insists on ‘dynamic Zero-Covid’ without wavering, carries out the people’s war against the epidemic, the overall war, the interdiction war, protects the people’s life safety and health to the maximum extent, coordinates the epidemic prevention and control and economic and social development to achieve significant positive results.” In addition, Xi reiterated a common refrain that China’s commitment to “promoting international cooperation in the fight against Covid, winning wide international acclaim.”
Xi may not realize the diminishing effectiveness of this costly policy. In the face of more infectious and milder Covid-19 strains, the Chinese government registered more than 3,500 high- or intermediate-risk areas in early September, the most since February 2020. Xi does seem to hold strong convictions about the acuteness of Covid-19. During the summer, he appears to be the only world leader to send formal messages of sympathy to US President Joe Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida. They both had mild symptoms of COVID-19.
In October, in a move against political norms, Xi Jinping sealed his third term surrounded by loyalists after the 20th Party Congress. As Huang Yanzhong, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations, pointed out, if Xi does not abandon the Zero-Covid policy himself, it is unlikely to be challenged inside the party. Xi Jinping’s opinions have always mattered (if not more after the Party Congress). Hence, even deepened social resentment following a spike in cases nationwide or prolonged, arbitrary lockdowns would not dictate a shift in policy. As long as the government can implement a mitigation-based approach, bring people’s attention to the danger posed by the virus, and make hospitals available only in extreme cases, the Zero-Covid solution can still muddle through the crisis. By and large, if cutting off community transmission and overall numbers of cases are optimistically manageable, the Zero-Covid strategy will gradually ease in 2023. As predicted by Economist Intelligence, it appears that border control and mobility control may also be loosened.
Gradually easing but not ending the heavy-handed tactics seems largely acceptable to some. However, an appalling scenario in which the rapid, nationwide spread of the virus overwhelms the country’s response capacity could render the Zero-Covid solution impossible. The virus may become so highly transmissible that existing interventions are no longer effective. Any attempt to contain the spread will become futile when new variants spike and localized outbreaks rapidly develop into nationwide outbreaks. The unwavering adherence to the Zero-Covid policy entails devastating social and political consequences. Hospitals become overwhelmed, causing panic, fear, and outcry. Lockdowns are almost constant in major cities, undercutting economic vitality. Increasing unemployment rates and containing freedom from all walks of life translate into a collapse of technocracy and, ultimately, a legitimacy crisis.
In either case, unless its power is threatened, the party claiming to serve the people won’t care about real people now starving or depressed due to separation from their families. Citizens under authoritarianism are pawns and insignificant. In the words of Anna Qin, an education consultant, “now it’s closed, now it’s open, and we have no control. And now we’re supposed to be happy.”