With just three weeks until the opening of the Winter Olympics in Beijing, Covid-19 is creeping ever closer to the capital. The Communist party is seeking to isolate Beijing from the rest of the country to keep the virus at bay and the games on track. But its zero-Covid policy, a desperate game of Whac-A-Mole with the virus, is looking increasingly unsustainable.
All routes between Beijing and Tianjin have been closed after an outbreak in the port city, which is adjacent to the capital. Flights and high-speed train services in and out of a city of 14 million people have been cancelled and highways closed after the discovery of 126 cases in recent days, all of them the highly contagious Omicron variant. A third round of mass testing has been ordered. The discovery of a handful of cases in Shanghai has led to travel restrictions, and the population of China’s financial capital is waiting to learn if more draconian measures will follow.
Across China, more than 20 million people are now confined to their homes. The cities of Xi’an and Anyang have been shut down completely. The lockdowns are being policed with a combination of claustrophobic surveillance of movement and interactions and a casual brutality towards those deemed to have contravened the rules.
Hospital employees in Xi’an refused to admit a man suffering from chest pains because he lived in a medium-risk district. As a result, he died of a heart attack. A social media post by his daughter was censored because it ‘contained negative information about the society.’ An eight-month pregnant woman lost her baby after she was turned away from a hospital that claimed her Covid test wasn’t valid. Senior employees of a cargo handling company in Dalian were sentenced to up to 57 months in prison for not requiring employees to were masks. There have been reports of shortages of food and other necessities in Xi’an – such is the CPP’s ruthless, almost fanatical approach to enforcing its ‘zero-Covid’ policy.
The economic costs are beginning to mount, as the draconian measures threaten to damage global supply chains. Samsung Electronics and Micron Technology have warned of disruption to their chipmaking operations in Xi’an. Volkswagen has shut down plants in Tianjin and Ningbo. A container port in Ningbo, the world’s third busiest, is facing worsening backlogs because of a partial shutdown that followed the discovery of 19 cases in the surrounding area. In the city of Zhengzhou, where a good chunk of the world’s iPhones and iPads are assembled, the local government has ordered all residents to undergo Covid-19 tests.
Eurasia Group, a respected US-based consultancy, has put the zero-Covid policy at the top of its list of political risks for the year ahead, warning that the policy will backfire for China and damage the global economy.
The overall figures in China are still low by international standards – an additional 143 cases were reported on Thursday. But Chinese health experts worry that the country is especially vulnerable to the Omicron variant, against which Chinese vaccines are less effective.
The main reason why China will not change its policy to one of learning to live with the virus, as is happening in much of the rest of the world, is political. Too much is at stake for Xi Jinping. He has staked his reputation on the zero-tolerance approach. ‘Victory’ over the virus has become a key part of the growing cult of Xi in a year where the Party will endorse his bid to become leader for life. It underpins the CCP’s triumphalism and Xi’s boasts of being superior to the bungling West.
The immediate priority is to protect Beijing and to save the Olympics, which for the CCP is primarily a propaganda exercise. The games will be the most tightly controlled sporting event since the start of the pandemic. The authorities have ordered the cancellation over the coming weeks of multiple international flights into the capital, and tightened entry requirements from elsewhere in the country.
The Beijing authorities say all people entering Beijing will be monitored and screened, and anybody they deem to be at risk will be quarantined. Commuters to the city are being told to work from home, and work-place screening is being stepped up.
The Chinese people have been told that hardship and sacrifice is the price they must pay for beating the virus, and so far they have appeared to be remarkably willing to go along with it. Yet the CCP has offered no exist strategy, and as the rest of the world returns to a degree of normalcy, it is doubtful whether zero-Covid or the relentless calls for sacrifice can be sustained.
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