The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

China’s lockdowns bring the pandemic full circle

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In a certain sense, it’s early 2020 all over again. A major Chinese city is under draconian lockdown because of a coronavirus outbreak. The restrictions imposed by authorities have had grim downstream economic effects, snarling supply chains and manufacturing operations. The Chinese stock market is tanking.

Instead of Wuhan, where the coronavirus first emerged more than two years ago, the current city in the spotlight is the coastal metropolis of Shanghai, now nearing its fifth week of an asphyxiating lockdown. The city is the latest showcase of China’s relentless “zero covid” policy, which, in a bid to stomp out infections, sees sweeping restrictions imposed on the local population that would be hard to imagine in many societies elsewhere.

The 26 million residents of China’s financial capital have been ordered to stay confined at home, except when undergoing periodic rounds of mass testing. Anyone who tests positive is whisked away to quarantine centers, some with living conditions that include 24/7 lights and no privacy across tens of thousands of beds. In recent weeks, more than 340 million people in China have been placed under some form of lockdown.

Meanwhile, in much of the rest of the world, life appears largely normal — even when many Western countries report daily covid infections far higher than what’s seen in China. Anthony S. Fauci, President Biden’s chief medical adviser, declared this week that the United States is finally “out of the full-blown explosive pandemic phase” — which has led to almost 1 million deaths in the country. “We’re really in a transitional phase, from a deceleration of the numbers into hopefully a more controlled phase and endemicity,” Fauci told The Washington Post.

The U.S.'s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that almost 60 percent of the country has already contracted covid. The European Union believes that figure for its population is somewhere between 60 percent and 80 percent. One by one, European countries have been dropping covid-related restrictions as they gear up for a summer of tourism and travel. No matter far greater death tolls than those reported by China, many societies in the West are coming to see that, thanks to vaccinations and growing herd immunity, it’s possible to get on with life in covid’s shadow.

In China, that does not seem possible. The absolutist dogma of “zero covid” pushed by the country’s ruling authorities has led to a game of whack-a-mole, with the government installing harsh quarantine regimes on whole communities even as the newer strains of coronavirus prove less lethal and dangerous, if more infectious. “China was the first to get into the pandemic, and it’s the last to get out,” Joerg Wuttke, president of the E.U. Chamber of Commerce in China, told a Swiss trade publication.

In Shanghai, the Chinese government is also seeing its powers of censorship and repression tested to their limits. Mounting public anger over the manner and hardship of the lockdowns, food shortages and the dismal state of some quarantine centers has proliferated on Chinese social media, with the government censors playing catch up to delete such videos and messages.

The moment recalls the early stages of the outbreak in Wuhan, when authorities silenced a local doctor who tried to warn others of the risks of the virus in December before the threat was fully disclosed, and then later succumbed to it himself.

“The censorship is more effective than two years ago, but this shows its limit,” Xiao Qiang, a researcher on Internet freedom at the University of California at Berkeley, told the New York Times. “They can’t solve the root of the problem. People see the government could be getting this wrong to the point of disaster.”

That’s a real problem for Chinese President Xi Jinping, who is closely associated with the “zero covid” policy. For months in the depths of the pandemic, it seemed a safe approach. As countries from North America to South Asia were ravaged by the virus, China stood apart. Wuhan, the pandemic’s original epicenter, staged an epic summer party in the summer of 2020 at a time when transatlantic travel was brought to a virtual halt. The “people’s war” against an “invisible enemy,” as Xi described his government’s anti-covid efforts, was being won.

But things are different now as the omicron variant breaks through Chinese defenses. The lockdown in Shanghai is ham-handed, likely ineffectual and deeply damaging in economic terms. Sticking to “zero covid” — including launching a possible new lockdown in Beijing, where cases are rising — would risk stoking more public disquiet, as well as further economic disruption at home and abroad.

Already, some analysts see an epochal collapse due to state policies. “We think the Chinese economy at this moment is in the worst shape in the past 30 years,” Weijian Shan, Hong Kong-based founder and chair of one of Asia’s biggest private equity firms, told brokers in a meeting whose video was obtained by the Financial Times. “The market sentiment toward Chinese stocks is also at the lowest point in the past 30 years. I also think popular discontent in China is at the highest point in the past 30 years.”

Abandoning the current measures — similar to what governments in Australia and New Zealand ultimately decided to do once it became too difficult to contain infection breakouts — carries its own risks. For one thing, as James Palmer noted in Foreign Policy, a spike in new cases may spotlight “the relative weakness of Chinese-made vaccines and the low vaccination rate among the very elderly.”

But, more importantly, ending “zero covid” would be an admission of failure by an autocrat who seems to need to look perennially infallible. “The ruling Chinese Communist Party would be effectively conceding that it really does not have a superior system with regard to Western liberal democracies,” wrote government professor Minxin Pei in Nikkei Asia Review. “President Xi, a consistent champion of the zero-COVID strategy, may also have to take responsibility for maintaining the current course despite mounting evidence of its unsustainability.”

“For the past two years, the party leadership and government have spun the narrative that China has handled the pandemic much better than the decadent West,” Wuttke said. “Now this narrative is blowing up in their faces.”

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