China Loves Zero-Covid. The Chinese? Not So Much.
China Loves Zero-Covid. The Chinese? Not So Much.
For more than two weeks, the government of Xian, a Chinese city of 13 million people, has confined residents to their homes as it tries to extinguish a Covid outbreak amounting to fewer than 2,000 infections. It's a continuation of the “zero-Covid” policy that crushed the initial outbreak in Wuhan in 2020.
China’s leaders have embraced zero-Covid as a badge of nationalist pride. China's low infection and death rates, they say, prove the superiority of China's form of governance to democracies that continue to suffer large-scale outbreaks.
But nearly two years into the pandemic, its popularity among the Chinese people appears to be waning. Xian's lockdown has produced widely documented food shortages, denials of medical care and other hardships.
Users of China's heavily censored social media services are openly questioning whether zero-Covid is worth the cost, undermining the power of the official narrative.
This isn't the first time in the pandemic that official China has faced online pushback. In January 2020, Li Wenliang, a young doctor in Wuhan, was summoned by the police for warning friends and colleagues about the emerging coronavirus. Three weeks later, Li posted an admonishment notice from a Covid ward hospital bed to China's Twitter-like Weibo service, catalyzing popular frustration with the initial Covid coverup. On the night of his death from Covid shortly afterward, citizens of Wuhan, already under lockdown, opened their windows and screamed. His martyrdom transformed his musings “on the need for more than one voice in a healthy society” into online demands for freedom of speech.
It was the most potent political challenge to Communist Party supremacy in years. Yet it took just weeks for the authorities to silence it. Harsh lockdowns quelled the threat posed by Covid (and memories of the coverup and subsequent outbreak), while a concerted propaganda campaign recast China as a leader in efforts to control Covid globally. By August 2020, Wuhan was hosting giant, maskless pool parties and Chinese voices willing to doubt zero-Covid were rare, and quickly silenced.
That's how China remained well into 2021: sporadic outbreaks were handled with lockdowns of varying severity. In Xian, local authorities locked down the city last month as case counts rose by more than 50 per day. Now residents are only permitted to leave home for medical purposes or to buy groceries. If anyone tests positive in a residential compound, the entire compound is sent to quarantine. According to the authorities, the lockdown will end only when it achieves "zero social transmission."
It hasn't gone well. Food shortages have been common and local institutions — keen to uphold Beijing's inflexible commitment to zero Covid — have committed themselves to slavish Covid rule-following, often to the point of cruelty. Video captured a hungry man being beaten by epidemic control officers after leaving home for steamed buns. On New Year’s Day, a pregnant woman in her third trimester was barred from entering a hospital because her Covid test had expired hours earlier. Unable to obtain care, she miscarried on the street.
Incidents like these have catalyzed anger toward the government, which is pouring out on social media. In late December, a hashtag that reads “It's difficult to buy groceries in Xian” was viewed hundreds of millions of times on Weibo. On Thursday, the Weibo account associated with People's Daily, the official voice of the Communist Party, asked users to post calls for assistance. In response, it's received thousands of critiques, many noting that the price of no Covid deaths is deaths from enforcing zero Covid.
“Dying from Covid is a natural disaster, and dying from a policy is a manmade disaster,” reads a particularly popular comment on this thread.
Netizens are even questioning whether self-congratulatory comparisons to the US are warranted. An anonymous user of Weibo recently posted a video of 88,000 people gathered for the 2022 Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California. “The streets of the United States aren't just covered in dead people,” she wrote. “The stadiums are full of living people.” Then, using a popular idiom that basically means “sticking one's head in the sand,” she asked: “What's better, plugging your ears until getting to zero? Or herd immunity?”
It's striking that her post and others like it have generated little or no pushback from censors or the online nationalists who typically harass Chinese whom they deem to be unpatriotic or disloyal.
For now, China's leadership remains unwavering in its commitment to zero-Covid. In recent days, it's sought to shift blame for Xian's problems to local officials instead of reconsidering a policy that Beijing is counting on to keep the country Covid-free through the 2022 Olympics.
But few voices on China's social networks appear inclined to believe in the government's Covid competence. Zero-Covid has even been turned into a punchline.
“I'll tell you a joke,” an anonymous Weibo user wrote sarcastically in response to the offer by People's Daily to serve as a clearinghouse for Covid assistance. “Nobody died of Covid.”