The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

China again holds firm on ‘zero covid,’ despite the worsening toll

Workers guard an entrance Monday to a neighborhood in Shanghai that was placed under lockdown. (Qilai Shen/Bloomberg News)
3 min

Chinese officials say the government will adhere “unswervingly” to its “zero covid” strategy, dashing hopes that authorities would loosen the increasingly unpopular controls that have dented the economy and strained public patience.

The declaration that the country would continue to follow its “dynamic clearing” policy — an approach of border controls, strict lockdowns and travel restrictions — came after two deaths linked to the measures only reignited public anger.

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China’s ‘zero covid’ protests
Across China, a weekend of mass protests broke out in cities and on campuses against the government’s unpopular “zero covid” policy. Local security officials on Monday clamped down on citizens defying threats of reprisal, including some who used blank sheets of paper to get their message across.
‘Zero covid’
“Zero covid” attempts to keep coronavirus cases as close to zero as possible. For nearly three years, China has persisted with the policy, despite the economic and human costs, that’s left a vast population without natural immunity. Here’s what to know about the policy and how it triggered recent protests.
The human toll
Many have blamed the government’s draconian rules for delaying emergency response to tragedies including a fatal fire that killed 10 and a deadly bus crash. In Shanghai, a nurse died of an asthma attack after being refused admittance to her own hospital. “Zero covid” lockdowns have left people pleading for food and medical care.


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And a day after the announcement by a spokesman for the National Health Commission, Apple said in a statement Sunday that it expects lower shipments of iPhone 14s as a result of “significantly reduced capacity” at its sprawling factory in Zhengzhou, in Henan province. Thousands of workers there have been fleeing lockdown since late October.

Coronavirus testing was underway Nov. 8 in Beijing following a day after authorities detected 64 new cases. (Video: Reuters)

China is one of the few countries in the world still pursuing zero coronavirus cases after nearly three years of the pandemic, even as the economic and human costs of its measures become clearer.

Last week, a 3-year-old boy in the city of Lanzhou died of carbon monoxide poisoning after it took his parents, obstructed by covid restrictions, two hours to get him to a hospital. Local media reports said he succumbed shortly after arriving.

His death was followed Friday by word that a 55-year-old woman had died by suicide after nine days of being trapped by officials in her apartment. She jumped from her window in the city of Hohhot, in Inner Mongolia, after her neighborhood was put under lockdown and her apartment sealed from the outside.

The new wave of public anger ranges from a blanket criticism of the zero-covid policy to accusations of poor implementation by local officials and health workers. As adherence to zero covid becomes more closely tied to political performance and loyalty to Xi Jinping, China’s most powerful leader in decades, more extreme measures have become more frequent as local officials scramble to show allegiance.

The government’s statement on Saturday ended days of speculation that covid restrictions could be partially lifted after the close of a party congress where Xi secured a new term.

“As ordinary people, we silently cooperate and exercise restraint, but we clearly feel some kind of discontent. In a pandemic, life is the most important. We should strike a balance between freedom and rules. Shouldn’t the rules also have limits?” read one commentary posted on WeChat on Monday.

China is facing its greatest surge of coronavirus cases in six months, with officials reporting 5,496 new locally transmitted infections for Sunday. The count was the highest since an outbreak in Shanghai that precipitated a harsh and widely criticized lockdown.

Senior Chinese officials defend their approach by pointing to the high number of deaths in the United States and other countries. China has reported just over 5,000 total deaths.

Extricating itself from zero covid will be difficult for the country, where 1.4 billion people have little natural immunity and the domestic vaccines administered to most of the population have proved less effective against newer, more transmissible variants of the coronavirus. China’s elderly citizens are especially vulnerable.

In a nod to public criticism, health commission spokesman Mi Feng called Saturday for improving the level of “scientific precision” in covid measures. Health authorities also urged local officials to avoid “improper” practices like forcing people from low-risk areas to quarantine or expanding travel restrictions to include areas that are not at high risk.

In Hohhot, where the woman jumped to her death while under lockdown, local authorities condemned the building managers and community workers for not responding quickly after they learned from her daughter that she was suffering a breakdown. Pictures online showed residents had placed flowers by the gate of the woman’s apartment compound.

Vic Chiang in Taipei and Lyric Li in Seoul contributed to this report.