On 1 June, after enduring a gruelling two-month lockdown, Shanghai residents were finally allowed to leave their apartments and resume normal life. Social media platforms lit up with videos of people cheering and letting off fireworks to celebrate the end of their ordeal, in some cases literally dancing in the streets, along with the hashtag “Shanghai is back”.
But then, just days later, on 9 June, parts of the city were locked back down. “When is this ever going to end?” demanded one exasperated resident on Weibo, a popular Chinese microblogging site, after the Shanghai government announced another round of mass testing and new restrictions for approximately two million people to contain another suspected Covid outbreak.
In Beijing on the same day, the authorities ordered entertainment venues and internet cafés in the most populous district to close as fears spread that further restrictions would soon follow. Here too, the city had only just emerged, three days earlier, from a partial lockdown that had lasted more than a month.
The reason for this apparently never-ending cycle, as has been well documented by now, is China’s “zero Covid” (sometimes called “dynamic zero”) strategy, which mandates strict lockdowns and mass testing to contain local outbreaks and keep infections as close to zero as possible. It worked well for the first 18 months of the pandemic, keeping case numbers in China to just a fraction of those in many Western countries. Fewer than 15,000 people have died from Covid in China to date, according to research by Johns Hopkins University, compared with more than one million people in the US (and 180,000 in the UK).
But maintaining that approach after the arrival of the highly transmissible Omicron variant in late 2021 has meant confining tens of millions of Chinese citizens to their homes, often for weeks at a time, including an entire province of 24 million people in north-eastern China in March 2022. Beyond the personal hardship this has wrought, with heart-rending reports of people running out of food and unable to get emergency medical care, the strategy has also taken a heavy toll on the country’s economy, with consumer spending plummeting and industrial production also down. For the first time in more than 40 years, the US economy is expected to grow faster than China’s.
This is not just a problem for the Chinese government. Oil prices dipped with the news of Shanghai’s latest restrictions. Analysts warned that the continued lockdowns would exacerbate already strained global supply chains and could contribute to inflation and the intensifying cost-of-living crisis in many countries.
This has caused uncertainty for Chinese factories and manufacturing plants, which have had to suspend production and introduce “closed loop” systems, with workers remaining on site. The ratings agency Fitch says the restrictions have also caused significant backlogs at the port of Shanghai, the world’s largest container port, adding to existing supply chain disruptions. With around 15 per cent of global merchandise exports originating in China, the agency warned that shortages of manufactured goods could worsen and that this would contribute to global inflationary pressures.
In short, it is not only Shanghai residents who have reason to fear the impending lockdowns and to wonder when the “zero Covid” strategy might ever end. Unfortunately, the outlook for a change in policy is not promising, in the short term at least. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership has signalled it has no intention of wavering from its course, with the general secretary Xi Jinping telling officials in March that “persistence is victory”.
There is a strong public health argument to stick with the current strategy. According to a study by scientists in China and the United States that was published in the journal Nature in May, more than 1.5 million people could die if the government abandoned the policy without taking further steps to protect the population. They cited the low levels of vaccination among the elderly in China – where only around 50 per cent of those over 80 vaccinated – and the inability of the country’s healthcare system to cope with a sudden surge in cases.
Yet this is a political decision too. It is politics, for instance, that prevents the CCP from approving the more effective foreign mRNA vaccines for use in China, preferring to wait until its own vaccines are available. And it is a political choice to prioritise the mass testing and lockdown strategy, and to vaunt the successes of the Chinese approach, rather than to mobilise resources and embark on a nationwide campaign to get the older population vaccinated.
This is a critical year for Xi, ahead of the 20th Party Congress that is expected to be held this autumn, when he will almost certainly secure a third five-year term in power. In the run-up to that event, he will want to ensure domestic stability, and to continue to portray China’s handling of the pandemic as a brilliant and unmitigated success. In other words, he will persist with the “zero Covid” strategy and present it as a victory, while the lockdowns for tens of millions of Chinese citizens and the consequences for the rest of the world go on.
This article first appeared in the World Review newsletter. It comes out on Mondays and Fridays; subscribe here.