China: ‘Zero Covid’ disaster – voices from Shanghai

“I want to break down and cry” ⬤ Li Yong of spoke to Shanghai residents Haiyang and Xiaoyan.

These interviews were conducted on 11 April when Shanghai had been in lockdown for almost a fortnight. Since then the city of 28 million people has endured a further four weeks of full-scale lockdown with no end in sight. The current outbreak of the Omicron variant of Covid-19 is the worst China has experienced. It is “ten times more severe” than the original Wuhan outbreak of 2020, both in economic terms and the population affected, according to economist Xu Jianguo of Peking University’s National School of Development.

Over 300 million people in almost 50 cities are in full or partial lockdown including the capital Beijing. Xi Jinping’s ‘Zero Covid’ policy has caused economic paralysis and a humanitarian crisis. The lockdowns are enforced with extreme brutality and bureaucratic heavy-handedness. This is stoking unprecedented mass anger against the government as reflected in rapidly deleted social media posts and videos of police brutality. Banned videos like ‘Voices of April’ have nevertheless garnered many millions of views.

In the past week, the Shanghai authorities have intensified the lockdown on orders from Xi and the central CCP (so-called Communist Party) leadership. This has meant stepped up house-to-house visits with white-costumed enforcers storming into people’s homes to spray disinfectant — literally breaking down doors in some cases — and to take people away to quarantine centres. These are makeshift barracks with poor toilet and shower facilities, no privacy, and inadequate food. The latest more rigorously enforced lockdown rules mean that if one person tests positive, their entire apartment building is sent to the quarantine camps.

The policy is not only brutal and deeply unpopular, but also wasteful and counterproductive. Personnel and financial resources are being diverted from hospitals and the healthcare system into conducting mass nucleic acid testing of the entire population and into running the quarantine centres. The vaccination of the elderly and vulnerable — an area of deep concern in China where 40 percent of over-60s are still not fully vaccinated — has suffered as a result of these skewed priorities. Nationally, the number of shots carried out in this key demographic has fallen from 600,000 per week in April to 300,000 per week currently. The Chinese regime’s refusal on nationalist grounds to lift its import ban on more effective foreign ‘memory RNA’ vaccines (such as those made by Pfizer and Moderna) is another impediment.

The following interview shows the human side of this disaster. Xi Jinping is focused wholly on cementing his one-man dictatorship (a shift from the CCP’s previous model of collective dictatorship) at a key meeting, the 20th Congress, later this year. Xi is now using the ‘Zero Covid’ policy, the “best in the world” he claims, as a de facto loyalty oath and a tool to intimidate malcontents within the CCP-capitalist elite who oppose his greater concentration of personal power. As on other crisis issues — Hong Kong, Chinese support for Russia’s war in Ukraine, nationalism and the new imperialist Cold War — Xi Jinping’s default position is to double down when his policies are questioned.

Therefore despite the catastrophic economic toll with unemployment surging and signs of mass discontent, Xi seems intent on maintaining the ‘Zero Covid’ line at least until the 20th Congress. When the formerly CPP-friendly Director-General of the World Health Organisation (WHO), Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, recently criticised the policy as “unsustainable” his speech was banned in Chinese media. Several leading Chinese virologists have made similar criticisms in the past few months and of course these comments have been blocked by the censorship regime. Can you briefly describe conditions in your neighbourhood?

Haiyang: My wife and I live in Pudong. Although the policy said that the lockdown will last until 1 April, in fact since there are new cases in Pudong almost every day, as far as I know, most areas are still in full lockdown, including the community we live in. We have been locked down for half a month, and we have hardly left our house except for being called down for nucleic acid testing and receiving supplies. The neighbourhood committee said this morning that there were new confirmed cases, so now we don’t know if we will be quarantined for a long time. It’s never-ending. [Note: Four more weeks of lockdown have passed since the interview] What has this meant for your daily life?

Haiyang: To keep us isolated at home there are the dabai [“big whites”: the enforcers in white hazmat body suits] who come around every one or two days, holding loudspeakers and shouting to one building after the next to come down to do nucleic acid testing. Sometimes there are drones flying around the community broadcasting warnings. Of course, what everyone pays most attention to is announcements about when they will receive food and supplies. But frankly speaking, given the notorious level of [in]efficiency and style of the neighbourhood committees, my family would have starved to death several times over if we had relied on them. In the end, I have to find food and other supplies by myself.

I need to check online all the time for available group buys and which ones have the best chance of being shipped fastest. Therefore, in our local WeChat group, apart from shouting “hungry”, messages about possible food deliveries are the most frequently exchanged. In the past, all my WeChat groups were muted, but now even if I hear a new message in the middle of the night, I get up and look immediately for fear that I would miss my chance to get what food is available. Last week, there were people selling pork in the community at midnight. I think it was some kind of black market. Everyone said that it’s fine to buy it yourself, but don’t talk about it to outsiders. I bought four catties of meat for 220 yuan, which is about 25 percent more expensive than usual. [1 catty = 0.6kg] What do the goods distributed by the government include?

Xiaoyan: Hahahaha! I have only received a goods package once, and it contained two Chinese cabbages and eight potatoes, two of which had sprouted and could not be eaten. This package is barely enough for the both of us to eat for two or three days. But compared to others this is not so bad. I know that some people in other communities only received two carrots and two onions. What the hell is that? In some communities, the packages had their labels torn off and were then resold.

My colleague said that the goods package for his community last week was delivered early in the morning and just left at the roadside, outside the gate where you aren’t allowed to go. For some reason it wasn’t sent into the community for distribution, so the whole pile just rotted in front of them for two full days outside in the sun.

Then garbage trucks came and took it away. My colleague was so angry that he ran to the gate of the compound with other residents and cursed the officers. The police took him home and told him that if he made a fuss again, they would treat him as a positive tester, and drag him off to a quarantine unit. But nowadays, that threat no longer scares people, because if they lock you up, then at least they become responsible for feeding you instead of you worrying about starvation. Do you think the ‘Zero Covid’ policy is working?

Xiaoyan: Actually, no one in Shanghai thinks that the government is really preventing the pandemic. Everyone knows that it is just that the bureaucrats of the government are mechanically implementing one order after another, in order to complete their own work targets, not for the so-called purpose of protecting people’s health.

Now everyone knows that Healthcare Cloud [a mobile app launched by the government that records the user’s nucleic acid test results] is completely useless. It can be said that the Healthcare Cloud, whose test result records are semi-officially recognized, is a fake. Even if the app says you are negative, the authorities will ignore it because they know it doesn’t mean anything.

So do you think it is credible that CCTV [the main television channel news] announces how many new confirmed cases in Shanghai every day? And there were cases when ten people shared a test tube for nucleic acid testing, because there were not enough reagents. If your group tests positive, you will be taken one by one and tested, or even if they don’t test individually, they can show up at your door and tell you that you tested positive and your whole family will be quarantined. Where are you taking us? They say they don’t know, and even if they knew, they wouldn’t tell you. It’s like leading people to be slaughtered! Then why does the government still confine people in the quarantine units?

Xiaoyan: Because their aim is to be “community level zero”! That is, there can be no confirmed cases in this area, so they will immediately drag you out of the city, and there will be no positive cases, when everyone testing positive is gone, and the registry is cleared. As for whether you have anything to eat, warm clothes to wear, and whether you need medicine or not, they won’t care, because there is no requirement to ensure that you, the ‘discarded people’, have any protection.

This means they don’t care about your health and safety, so you can’t reason with those idiots. This is how they behave: if they go easy on you and don’t arrest you, if by some chance you then spread the virus, they will be held responsible; if they arrest you and end up making mistakes that could harm or even kill you, they will certainly not be punished for it. Simply put, we don’t have any power to monitor them, but they have unlimited power to lord over us without taking any responsibility. Is it having a big impact on your personal economy?

Haiyang: To be honest, we were already very pessimistic and were even starting to feel a little hopeless. Before Chinese New Year [1 February], our company laid off eight percent of its employees, and most of those laid off were in my age group, in their thirties and forties. My wife’s situation was not much better. We are very worried it will be our turn next. Now that the city is in lockdown, my salary will not be paid, but the boss still sends me email to ask me to do some work at home. Is it remotely reasonable that one’s salary is not paid, but I’m still expected to work, for nothing?! But now, in this world, dare we refuse? No, just knuckle under and do some work and try to feel better. My wife is in a better position and is receiving half her salary.

And we are a relatively fortunate group. With the help of our family we paid off the mortgage on our flat and we manged to save up some money. However, what we’re doing now is consuming our savings and it’s unsustainable. But if you have to ask me what I plan to do here in the future, I really can’t answer, brother, I want to break down and cry now, let me tell you.

I won’t talk to you about the government’s economic data. For us ordinary people, the past two years have been really difficult and there’s nothing we can do about it. Many individuals’ plans for the future have been put on hold. With the loss of savings little by little, who dares to spend money on anything beyond the bare necessities? Some of our old classmates even had to borrow money from loan sharks, and we heard that the home of one of them is about to be foreclosed on and auctioned off by the authorities.

Can anyone imagine this scene happening more than ten years out from graduation? As for the so-called economic data on GDP, they [the CCP] try to maintain that China can achieve four, five, six, seven or eight percent growth by fraudulent statistics, but with these changes happening around us, they can no longer deceive people about our economic prospects.

Xiaoyan: I’m glad we didn’t want children, otherwise our troubles would be even greater now. Friends and colleagues around us are also very tired and fed up of being pushed around. If the authorities keep doing this, we will either die of illness or starve to death. So now more and more people are saying that “living with Covid” is not an unreasonable option.

You can also see that among our old classmates, those who generally support the zero policy are civil servants, state-owned enterprise employees, and others working for government institutions. Those who still have the “iron rice bowl” [term for guaranteed jobs from before capitalist restoration initiated in 1979], they can stay at home and receive their paychecks while the city is locked down forever. But most of us work for private enterprises [80 percent of the urban workforce is in the private sector], and our lives are really becoming unsustainable. But do we have a say in this? Can we decide the direction of policy?

When we shouted at the neighbourhood committee at night to ask for supplies, a drone immediately flew over to order us to be silent. Don’t you think this situation is very dramatic? Therefore, it is gradually dawning on people in our community that they really can’t stand this any longer. Everyone goes to the outer gate to make trouble for the authorities. After all, when we unite, when there are more people, then we have more power, and everyone understands this fact.

Haiyang and Xiaoyan are aliases, their names have been changed for their protection.

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