The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

As China eases coronavirus restrictions, confusion and angst follow

Barriers divide parts of the southern city of Guangzhou, which is grappling with a sharp rise in covid cases amid protests by citizens fearful of new lockdowns. (Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
6 min

Lockdown arrived in Shijiazhuang with little warning this month. At the time, the northern Chinese city had only a handful of covid cases. Then 12 days later — just as abruptly, even as infections continued to rise — the restrictions were lifted.

The sudden reversal left residents unsure how to react. Some celebrated the reopening of bars, restaurants and movie theaters. Others vowed to remain home and stockpiled traditional flu medicine.

The reaction to China’s most significant easing of coronavirus controls has been a jumble of conflicted priorities and public sentiment since Beijing announced the changes a week ago. City governments are facing renewed demands that they not respond in ways that disrupt daily life. At the same time, months of official warnings about disastrous consequences should the virus run wild have many people fearful of the country’s soaring case numbers.

One 30-year-old employee of a state-owned enterprise in Shijiazhuang was surprised that her “conservative and cautious” hometown had suddenly become an experiment in the country’s attempt to escape its “zero covid” quagmire.

“Why suddenly have guts?” she asked, speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal. “I can’t help but feel that we are the guinea pigs.”

Stuck in China’s covid lockdown, people plead for food, medical care

China reported Friday that 25,353 individuals had tested positive the previous day, bringing its total number of symptomatic cases to 281,793. Though small compared with daily tallies in many countries, such numbers are among the highest China has recorded during the pandemic. No deaths have been reported in the most recent outbreak, but the contrast to months of near-zero infections remains shocking.

Mounting frustrations since the government’s announcement have occasionally turned chaotic. In the southern city of Guangzhou, protests escalated Monday into violent clashes with police after the Haizhu district extended lockdown even as the rest of the city was relaxing restrictions.

That followed the Guangzhou government’s decision in early November to force out-of-town workers to leave the city. Upon returning from quarantine centers, many were denied entry to their homes. Some accused authorities of negligence and discrimination against those without a local residence permit.

The restaurant that She Qianfeng runs was temporarily closed after dining-in was banned again, and he has since joined a group of volunteers distributing food and other supplies. “Residents were unhappy, because they think the government was ill-prepared and didn’t take good care of them,” said She, who is from Hubei in central China. Tensions flared. “Some got overly emotional and escalated the conflict. … Many people feared getting quarantined more than anything else.”

Workers flee world’s biggest iPhone plant in China over virus restrictions

Much of the uncertainty has come from officials’ confused and even contradictory messaging. Two weeks ago, the financial markets rose exuberantly on rumors of an imminent easing of coronavirus restrictions nationally. Health officials then denied any shift and promised “unswerving” adherence to the long-standing zero-covid policy. Days later, the government released its 20-point plan to slowly loosen quarantine and testing requirements.

Quarantine periods were reduced from 10 days to eight, with five days spent in centralized quarantine and three at home. Contacts of contacts of infected individuals no longer need to go to centralized quarantine facilities. International flight routes will not be suspended when too many people test positive on arrival. At least eight cities including Shanghai dropped mass testing requirements.

Official media have since been on a propaganda blitz to combat public dissatisfaction. The Chinese Communist Party newspaper, the People’s Daily, on Friday launched a question-and-answer column focused solely on the government plan. The state-run Xinhua News Agency warned that “just locking down and just opening up” were equally unacceptable.

For the local officials responsible for implementing control measures, an already extremely difficult task has become much harder. Officially, the approach known as “dynamic zero covid” remains. The aim is still to identify cases early and immediately block transmission by removing infected individuals from the general population. But the updated policy means mounting pressure to do that without disrupting daily life.

The Nov. 11 announcement threatened punishment for excessive “one-size-fits-all” or other forms of arbitrary coronavirus strictures that could cost the economy and society. Yet that usually means “a slap on the wrist, so the overarching priority is still covid control,” said Hongshen Zhu, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Pennsylvania who researches the trade-offs caused by China’s coronavirus directives.

The expanding outbreak and weaker control measures have sparked debate about whether China’s zero- covid strategy exists in name only now. The government emphatically denies that. At a news conference last weekend, National Health Commission spokesman Mi Feng underscored that the new measures were about optimizing policy, not opening up or “lying down.”

Instead of trying to live with the virus, as most of the world is doing, Beijing wants a “not only but also” approach that values normal life and outbreak intervention equally, wrote Zichen Wang, author of the Pekingnology newsletter and a fellow at the Center for China and Globalization, a Beijing-based think tank.

Health officials maintain that abandoning the zero-covid policy entirely would be disastrous for vulnerable populations. They point to Hong Kong, where a sudden surge in infections combined with a slow vaccination rollout led in March to the highest death rate in the world.

‘Zero covid’ has many in China dreaming of leaving

Vaccination rates among China’s elderly, who were not initially prioritized in the country’s vaccination rollout, have remained stubbornly low. Only about two-thirds of people older than 80 have had the double doses needed for basic immunity. Fewer than half have gotten a booster.

From the pandemic’s early days, critics of the government’s policy have fretted about the social and economic consequences of granting local officials too much power during lockdowns. They described a “second-order disaster” stemming as much from the response to the pandemic as from the virus itself.

A WeChat blog published Monday advocated jail time as punishment for officials who fail in their duty to maintain normal life as well as halt outbreaks. Current incentives address only the latter, it argued: Failing to avert an outbreak means bureaucrats lose their job, but there is no comparable accountability for ineffective actions that sacrifice people’s livelihoods, property and basic freedoms in the name of beating the virus.

Until that imbalance is addressed, concluded commentator Guanxiangtai, “we won’t be able to solve over-prevention no matter how many meetings are held or official documents are released.”

A father on Wednesday posted to social media that his infant daughter had died after being denied immediate medical care because she lacked a negative coronavirus test. Online outage over the tragedy was in large part directed at local officials, but some people also blamed the central government policy. A day later, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention announced that children younger than 3 are exempt from testing requirements.

“I have seen too much news like this in the past three years,” read one comment on Weibo, a Twitter-like site. “Isn’t it the duty of your hospitals to save lives and heal the sick? How many people will die in vain before this farce ends?”