Resentment mounts over China’s ‘zero-COVID’ policies – The Diplomat
On September 7, three days before the National Mid-Autumn Festival weekend, my husband and I received separate phone calls from the Shanghai District Pandemic Prevention Office where we live. We were advised that we had become sub-contacts of a recently confirmed COVID-19 case and needed to be taken to a centralized quarantine facility.
After living through the city’s excruciating two-month lockdown, we’ve adapted to the new post-lockdown reality: queuing for PCR tests every couple of days, scanning location codes posted outside from every public place to facilitate contact tracing, show a green health code on our smartphones to access restaurants and other services. But being told of an impending quarantine was a first, and as US citizens living in China, the uncertainties of what lay ahead heightened our anxieties.
Shanghai’s lockdown has ushered in a new level of brutality in the Chinese Communist Party’s maintenance of “zero COVID”. Lockdowns continue to be imposed across the country. The calamities we witnessed in Shanghai – people scrambling for supplies, being denied access to medical care – have been repeated across the country.
On social media, netizens point – subtly, to avoid censorship – to the party’s hypocrisy. On the one hand, pandemic regulations urge local leaders to implement science-based measures and avoid causing unnecessary harm to citizens; on the other hand, those who fail to maintain a zero or near-zero case status in their jurisdiction risk being demoted. Fear of retribution causes local party leaders to be too strict; the harm it causes civilians is a price they are only too willing to pay.
In Chengdu, authorities banned people from leaving fragile buildings amid an earthquake. In Lhasa, tourists were stuck on the Tibetan Plateau until they were confirmed to be free of COVID-19. In Guiyang, residents starved for days as authorities restricted deliveries to large areas of the city. In all three cases, local officials issued ad hoc apologies for their mishandling of the situations, but the mishandling continues.
My husband’s Chinese employer intervened on our behalf, negotiating for us to self-isolate at home. But just when we thought we’d been spared the harshest treatment, our building manager showed up on our doorstep the next day with two bags of hazmat suits. She told us that a van would pick us up at an undetermined time to quarantine us at an undetermined location; when they arrived we had to put on the suits. It appeared that negotiations were not on the table. My husband contacted his supervisor, who assured him that we would not be taken anywhere.
The next day, the health code on our phones turned red.
Standardized throughout the territory, the health code is available in three colors. Green is the color of acceptance; yellow or red would effectively limit a person’s freedom to access all public services, even in an emergency.
Arbitrary code assignment has been reported in several regions. In Minquan, a county of 700,000 people in the central province of Henan, the anti-COVID-19 bureau has decided to assign a yellow or red code not only to its entire population, but also to anyone with travel history to local coronavirus hotspots.
This type of arbitrariness is not new in authoritarian China – growing up here I experienced it firsthand – but the quest for “zero COVID” has amplified it. And there is no legal remedy for violations of individual rights when imposed by the authorities themselves.
Confined to my home, I called the restaurant where we supposedly contracted an infection risk. A staff member picked up the phone and, like a wrongfully convicted victim who found a prison mate, told me the confirmed COVID-19 patient had stopped by the restaurant on September 3 and placed an order. to take away. The transaction took place at the entrance and took no more than a few minutes. The restaurant was contacted on the 7th like us; all workers and customers who had visited the premises between September 3 and September 6 had to be quarantined. The staff member and I noticed the absurdity of the verdict, but there was nothing we could do.
The restaurant has daily foot traffic in the hundreds, implying that more than a thousand people have been confined to quarantine hotels where they have spent Mid-Autumn Festival – a traditional holiday for family reunions – away from their families. My husband and I felt lucky to stay home, but in some ways it was worse because our apartment had become a de facto prison. At the end of August, our residential complex had just suffered another 10-day closure following the two-month city-wide lockdown in the spring. The next closing could occur at any time.
Among the Chinese public, a feeling has spread that the 20th National Party Congress – due to start on Oct. 16 – cannot come too soon. The hope is that after Xi Jinping extends his grip on power, the draconian measures can be eased. China’s early success in containing the coronavirus has become a major political asset for the country’s leader, who has shown a willingness to protect his legacy at all costs.
But as COVID zero drags on, the public is hunkered down in their support for the original policy. The story of the sacrifice of a small population for the good of the whole country, which had been propagated in the early stages of the pandemic, no longer resonates. The country has taken on too much for the political agenda of one man.
“When is this going to end?” asked a commenter on social media in response to an overturned quarantine bus that killed 27 people over the weekend in Guizhou province. All 47 bus passengers confirmed to be sub-contacts with COVID-19 patients; they were transported overnight and hundreds of miles from their homes to quarantine centers. My husband and I could have been on that bus. Anyone could have been on that bus.
Online, these recent tragedies have conjured up the term lianzuo, a system under which anyone lightly related to a criminal is punishable. Codified in Imperial China, the system bears witness to the misery of a people under the reign of a feudal despot, who wielded his power to eliminate large family tribes and clans that had become threats to the throne.
The bad news is that despots only get more despotic. Regardless of the outcome of the political meetings this fall, Xi will continue to wreak havoc in the country. More criticism, both international and domestic, will further alienate him from rational advice, because power breeds paranoia. As Xi continues to impose political control over the country and its growing number of enemies, a higher price will be paid – and it is always the people who pay the bill.