Editor’s note: This piece was originally published on 21 April 2022 and has been updated in light of recent events. Protests against China’s strict Covid-19 control measures broke out on numerous university campuses and in several cities across the country on 26 November. In Shanghai, hundreds of protesters faced off with police, shouting “we want freedom” and some called for Xi Jinping to step down. Demands for the country’s “zero Covid” policy to be eased have been building for months as the economic and social costs of the lockdowns grows, but the outpouring of public anger appears to have been galvanized by fire at a high-rise apartment block in Xinjiang that killed at least 10 people on 24 November. Reports circulating on Chinese social media suggest that the victims were under lockdown and that pandemic control measures delayed the rescue effort (which the authorities have denied).
When the citywide lockdown of Shanghai began on 1 April, local officials said it was only a “temporary pause” to allow them to contain the latest Covid outbreak. They insisted the restrictions would be lifted again after four days. Instead, three weeks later, at least 14 million residents across the city are still confined to their apartments, where many have reported that they are running out of food. Video footage posted on social media platforms shows people screaming from the windows of high-rise blocks that they are hungry and cannot go on like this.
A Shanghai resident (we’ve agreed to call him James, to protect his identity) said he had been sceptical of the initial claim that the lockdown would only last a few days, but he could never have imagined that he would still be stuck inside several weeks later, on 20 April. “For me, the most difficult thing to deal with so far is the seemingly endless nature of this lockdown,” he told me. “It feels like Groundhog Day on a citywide scale.” While the most severe restrictions in some districts have now been eased, much of the city, including the area where James lives, is still under strict quarantine measures. A single positive case could trigger another 14-day lockdown for the entire neighbourhood.
Local government workers had started distributing food packages to residents on 3 April, James said, but the timing of those deliveries and their contents had varied widely across the city. He sent a photograph of one delivery he had received that included some frozen chicken legs, shrimp, and sausages, along with a Covid antigen self-test kit. He said he was in a better position than many, having been able to stock up on canned soups and coffee before the lockdown, but perishable food such as meat, poultry, and dairy products had not survived his 20 days in lockdown. It was difficult to source more, as many stores are closed. The online grocery and food delivery services many people previously relied on have been overwhelmed by demand and are struggling to find drivers with so many residents confined to their homes. There are reports of a barter economy emerging as neighbours trade basic goods, such as toothpaste for cooking oil, or instant noodles for paper tissues.
“What is eerie in lockdown Shanghai is the quiet,” James told me. “From my apartment, it’s common to see police stopping vehicles outside and checking occupants for relevant permissions to be outside during this lockdown, but in general the streets are very quiet, with mostly delivery riders and city workers out and about.” Under the lockdown rules, he is only allowed to go outside to buy groceries, if he can find them, or to report for his latest Covid test. He said he passed the time working and cooking inside his apartment, as well as staying in touch with friends and colleagues who are also under lockdown.
Under China’s “zero-Covid” or “dynamic Covid clearance” strategy, the government aims to keep cases as close to zero as possible by imposing mass lockdowns, testing, and contact tracing to contain local outbreaks when even a single infection is detected. But while this approach has successfully limited the spread of the virus over the last two years, it has also left the population with very little natural immunity. With the arrival of the highly transmissible Omicron variant, hundreds of millions of people have been forced to enduring long and unpredictable lockdowns; factories have been obliged to suspend production at key manufacturing hubs and there are concerns that this will cause further disruptions to already strained global supply chains. A recent study by the Beijing-based research firm Gavekal Dragonomics found that 87 of China’s 100 largest cities, as measured by GDP, were under some form of restrictions as of 6 April.
But public health officials fear that inadequate healthcare facilities would be rapidly overwhelmed if they abandoned their “zero-Covid” approach. The vaccines currently available in China have proven ineffective at preventing the spread of Omicron, and uptake has been patchy, especially among older people: only 38 per cent of Shanghai residents over 60 are fully vaccinated. China’s leader, Xi Jinping, has said the country must stick to its current strategy, declaring on 13 April that “persistence is victory”.
“Xi has linked himself personally to China’s zero-Covid policies,” explained Carl Minzner, a professor at Fordham Law School and the author of End of an Era: How China’s Authoritarian Revival is Undermining its Rise. “Recent days have seen the local authorities invoking his name on state television as the core leader who is directing these unrelenting policies. This doesn’t merely make it harder for other officials to question this approach – it makes it impossible.” Questioning the wisdom of the zero-Covid strategy, he said, would now be seen as tantamount to questioning Xi himself, and therefore unthinkable in China’s increasingly personalised authoritarian political system. But his close association with the current approach also carries its own political risks.
“If China’s zero-Covid policy continues for weeks or months to come, people will blame Xi for the consequences; the social dislocation and isolation, the economic turmoil caused by extended lockdowns, and the inevitable deaths that will result from loss of services,” Minzner said. But if the government relaxed its approach and a massive surge in cases and deaths followed, he added, “then people will blame him for that too – for losing a war that he declared victory over two years ago”.
Ahead of an important Communist Party congress this autumn when Xi is expected to seek a third five-year term in power, the prospect that he will shift course before then looks remote, which means the mass lockdowns and the uncertainty for hundreds of millions of Chinese citizens will continue.
[See also: How Xi Jinping views the world]