Confusion infected Shanghai on Tuesday, as the authorities dithered over a promised easing of severe lockdown rules and Covid-19 continued to surge. The city has become a test for China’s zero-Covid strategy, with prickly Communist party leaders sending mixed signals – insisting they will stick to what they now characterise as a ‘dynamic’ zero-Covid policy ‘without hesitation or wavering’.
At the weekend, vice-mayor Zong Ming announced a reclassification of Shanghai’s districts according to the severity of the outbreak. But residents of ‘low risk neighbourhoods’ were told Tuesday that while they could now move around in their compounds, they could not go out to the streets.
The city announced 22,342 new cases on Tuesday, the vast majority of them asymptomatic. There have now been 227,000 cases in China’s financial hub, which has a population of 25 million. Tuesday’s total represented a slight fall in the daily rate of new infections, but was enough to pause the city’s easing plans.
The US state department has now ordered non-emergency staff to leave its Shanghai consulate – a move that was motivated more by China’s measures to control the virus than by the virus itself. The announcement cited the risks of parents and children being separated – the forceable removal of Covid-positive children to quarantine has been one of the most controversial of Shanghai’s lockdown practices.
Shanghai is fighting China’s worst outbreak of Covid-19 since the virus first emerged in Wuhan at the end of 2019, though an analysis by Gavekal Research, a financial research group, shows that all but 13 of China’s richest 100 cities have imposed some form of quarantine restriction, with the intensity increasing.
Shanghai has resembled a ghost town since it went into full lockdown on 3 April. The lockdown has been greeted with widespread frustration and anger, with harrowing online pleas from those locked in their homes for help with medicine and food. One video emerged of residents of a high-rise apartment yelling from their widows, ‘we’re starving’. Another showed people fighting over food.
Quarantine facilities have been described as crowded and unsanitary. There was a national outcry over a video showing crying children separated from their parents and crammed into metal-barred beds. Thousands of Chinese social media users have shared stories of people with life-threatening illnesses who have been unable to get treatment.
One popular article posted was titled ‘More Dangerous Epidemic Is the Panic Surrounding the Epidemic’. It was widely shared before being deleted by the ever-present internet censors. Local officials have reported no Covid-related deaths, but with echoes of the cover-ups in Wuhan at the beginning of the pandemic, there have been reports of more than 20 deaths in facilities for the elderly.
As a city, Shanghai has always had attitude. It is far less stuffy than Beijing, and people can be more assertive and outspoken. The lockdown complaints were loud and quick to emerge. Although Shanghai is run (like most cities) by a loyalist of Xi Jinping, China’s leader, the apparent easing of lockdown rules may have been designed to head off unrest.
Shanghai also attracts resentment, and Zhong Nanshan, China’s top respiratory specialist accused the city of negligence. ‘The measures for prevention and control in Shanghai were not sufficient and there was insufficient understanding of the transmission characteristics of the Omicron variant,’ he told a webinar organised by Tianjin’s Nankai University.
Nanshan remarks also underlined how China is increasingly boxed in by its zero-Covid strategy. He said that under the ‘dynamic’ variant of that strategy China would gradually ease restrictions, before adding that China could not coexist with the virus. ‘Completely opening up does not apply to China because it will increase the number of deaths,’ he said.
Beijing has been spooked by the way Covid-19 has swept through Hong Kong, where death rates are now the highest in the world. Like in Hong Kong, vaccination rates amount the elderly are low in China – only half the over-80s are fully vaccinated and just a fifth are boosted. Add to that the lower efficacy rate of Chinese vaccines (Beijing having blocked Western vaccines) and China is highly vulnerable, even though the fast spreading Omicron variant is less deadly overall.
Balanced against that is the economic cost of endless and severe lockdowns. Li Keqiang, China’s premier and the man nominally in charge of economic affairs is sounding increasingly rattled, talking about the ‘greater uncertainties and challenges’ ahead. Ultimately, though, zero-Covid is a political strategy. It is Xi Jinping’s talisman. Too much is at stake for him, especially this year, when he is expected to be anointed by the party as leader for life.
Complete ‘victory’ over the virus has become a key part of the cult of Xi. It underpins the CCP’s triumphalism and Xi’s boasts of China being superior to the bungling West. In a sense he is right. It is hard to think of any other country, even among autocrats, that would have imposed China’s combination of claustrophobic surveillance and casual brutality towards those who disobey the party’s algorithms. But it is a policy that can’t be sustained. It is under stain like never before, and it is in Shanghai that its future is likely to be determined.
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