In a surreal scene on the front steps of a locked-down Shanghai apartment complex, a resident in a bright red rain jacket, mask and face visor lectured a team of hazmat-clad Chinese officials about the limits of state power.
The impromptu legal lecture comes amid a fresh wave of resentment over state overreach in Shanghai, where, in a bid to end China’s worst coronavirus outbreak since 2020, the city government this week further tightened restrictions in certain districts. In some areas, residential buildings and shops have been boarded up. Officials confiscated house keys to prevent isolation jailbreaks, while the empty homes of those put into centralized quarantine have been turned upside down as they are doused with disinfectant.
The escalating disruption of daily life from China’s “zero covid” policy, promoted at the highest level, risks alienating a population that has come to rely on what some scholars describe as the Communist Party’s implicit contract with the public: The leadership supports the economy, allows people to get rich and stays out of everyday affairs in exchange for political quiescence.
“The tacit agreement between us has been broken,” said a Shanghai-based Chinese journalist who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of repercussions. “Originally, you let me live a happy life, I wouldn’t do things against your interests, but that kind of trust no longer exists. I think that could be the most serious issue [caused by lockdown].”
While policymakers appear genuinely concerned about a possible “tsunami” of infections and deaths from the coronavirus spreading unchecked, the choice to stick with the current policy was also made because President Xi Jinping believes China reaching zero cases demonstrates the superiority of its governance over Western democracies, particularly the United States, according to Lynette Ong, a professor of Chinese politics at the University of Toronto.
“He pushed himself into a corner, where it’s difficult to walk the policy back,” she said.
The politicized nature of the zero-covid policy is raising fears about Xi’s style of personal rule, which increasingly relies on mass mobilizations where every person is expected to follow orders. That reassertion of the party into the lives of everyday citizens is drawing comparisons to dark periods of China’s past and sparking fears that there is no longer space in society to live a quiet life uninterrupted by ideologically motivated campaigns.
The Shanghai lockdown escalation was prompted by a meeting last week of the powerful Politburo Standing Committee of the Communist Party where Xi doubled down on the policy of total intolerance for coronavirus infections in the general population. The meeting concluded that anyone who doubts or denies the approach should be “struggled” against.
Shortly afterward, Shanghai began reversing what had been a gradual, if uneven, relaxation. Li Qiang, the local party secretary, described the new measures as “military orders,” invoking a practice in which army officers pledge to either deliver success or accept martial punishment for failure.
“It definitely has overtones of the ‘great leap forward’ in the 1950s where politics is in command,” said Carl Minzner, a senior fellow for China studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, referring to Mao Zedong’s disastrous campaign to catch up with industrialized nations’ steel and grain production that ended in mass famine.
One of the defining tragedies of Mao’s rule was skewed policy, due in part to fearful low-level officials reporting a rosier picture than reality to superiors. The famine in the wake of the great leap was exacerbated by localities covering up their grain shortages. Critics say Xi, too, could make such misjudgments, as dissenting voices are stifled and local officials tell higher-ups what they want to hear.
In the post-Mao reform period beginning in 1978, party leaders began leaving day-to-day control to the experts, which allowed more openness and discussion. But since Xi has taken charge, the party has reasserted itself.
“That has a deadening effect on discussion within the party state,” Minzner said. “People start to parrot what they think the top leader wants to hear. And lo and behold, the policymaking becomes very brittle and very extreme.”
Speculation has swirled about the political ramifications of public anger over lockdowns ahead of a leadership reshuffle in the fall, when many of the party’s most senior officials are expected to be replaced.
Some analysts say the backlash in Shanghai will make it harder for Li, the 62-year-old party boss who is considered a Xi ally, to secure a top position on the Politburo Standing Committee.
Aside from tracking possible promotions or demotions, however, most expect Xi’s direct control over decision-making to be increased at the Congress. This could take the form of a new title such as “party chairman” or “people’s leader.” Xi’s personal political ideology may also be elevated in status so it is on par with that of party founder Mao.
Yet acts of violence by police and low-level officials enforcing the restrictions in Shanghai have led to online comparisons with the chaos and trauma of the Mao era’s later years. In a video posted to the microblog Weibo on Monday, a homeowner wanders through his apartment noting everything that went missing during disinfection, including food from the fridge, bedsheets, curtains and clothes.
The most-liked comment beneath the video read, “Ah, I’ve seen this in history books, it’s search and confiscation,” a reference to a common practice during the Cultural Revolution in the late 1960s, when radical “red guards” would raid homes in search of banned items.
While Xi’s style of governing remains distinct from Mao’s preference for chaotic mass movements, scholars say both leaders share a preference for political campaigns to mobilize the whole society.
In a sign of how fed up residents are, middle-class Shanghaiers like the man in the red raincoat are now appealing to the rule of law to push back against state overreach.
He was possibly inspired by Chinese jurist Luo Xiang, who, in a lecture that went viral, explained how state power should extend only as far as what is codified in law. In video after video, residents began echoing Luo to demand legal justification for the harsh measures.
But China’s top leaders are less interested in the law than in achieving the outcomes they desire — even if it means breaking that law — the Shanghai-based journalist warned: “Chinese politics is about results. Law is about procedure, but they don’t care about procedure. They just want results.”
Eva Dou in Shenzhen, China contributed to this report.