In his landmark political report before the 20th Party Congress, Xi Jinping hailed China’s “tenacious pursuit” of its dynamic zero-COVID policy, an indication the policy is here to stay, despite consistent domestic criticism. At The Washington Post, Lily Kuo reported on the Chinese government’s continued embrace of the policy:
For three consecutive days this week, the party mouthpiece People’s Daily published editorials on why it must be followed.
“Fighting against the epidemic is both a material struggle and a spiritual confrontation. It is a contest of strength and a contest of will. We will not waver,” a commentary exhorted on Tuesday.
[…] The policy is “a key marker of Xi’s ability to lead the country through crisis. Its success is inextricably bound with that of Xi’s rule,” said Diana Fu, an associate professor in political science at the University of Toronto.
[…] According to [virologist Jin Dongyan of Hong Kong University], a feasible exit strategy would redirect resources from lockdowns and mass testing and instead prepare the health-care infrastructure, especially in rural areas, for outbreaks. It would focus on stocking up on antivirals, approving the use of mRNA vaccines and targeting the country’s unvaccinated elderly population.
But there are few signs China is preparing to move in that direction. Liang Wannian, an epidemiologist and senior government adviser, said in a recent interview with state broadcaster CCTV that there is no timetable for diverting from current policy. “We have seen the dawn of victory, but we have not yet reached the other side of victory,” he said. [Source]
China’s ability to prevent widespread unchecked COVID outbreaks has likely saved hundreds of thousands if not millions of lives. Nonetheless, the costly measures used to contain the virus have become a target of domestic criticism, which is in turn often subject to censure or censorship.
In June, the Shanghai-based state media outlet The Paper ran an essay by Zhao Hong, a law professor at the prestigious China University of Political Science and Law, in which she noted the dubious legal foundations of routinized COVID testing. Zhao wrote about a small city in Jilin province that adopted draconian punishments for those who missed, skipped, or otherwise deigned to participate in routinized testing: penalties included fines of 500 yuan (approximately $70), 10-day stints in jail, and businesses being temporarily shuttered. Zhao argued convincingly that such overreaches are illegal attempts to transfer the costs of pandemic vigilance to private citizens. The original article was quickly taken down, but it has been republished in other corners of the Chinese internet. State media outlets have repeatedly argued that “normalized anti-epidemic efforts” are sufficient to deal with outbreaks, blaming excessive measures on “lazy political thinking.”
Routinized testing has become a major focus of domestic dissatisfaction with pandemic policy. Protest art cropped up on testing kiosks in Beijing and was censored on Chinese social media. The first demand of the Beijing Sitong Bridge protestor was “We want food; not COVID tests.” A Hebei duo launched a performance art protest after they were evicted from their home for refusing to participate in routinized testing. Their protest proved successful: they were able to move into a new home and reach an agreement with their local government that exempted them from testing. With direct criticism of pandemic policy frequently censored, Soviet-style jokes about the policy have become popular, with some wags hinting that critics of the policy could be punished with a forced stay in a quarantine facility.
For now, China’s zero-COVID policy seems likely to continue. A host of new outbreaks have cropped up across the country, including one at Foxconn’s sprawling iPhone facility in Zhengzhou, Henan province. Video and images of Foxconn workers fleeing home on foot have been widely shared—and widely censored—on Chinese social media. At The Wall Street Journal, Wenxin Fan reported on the steps local governments are taking to make the policy permanent, even as they assure residents that “the lack of freedom will only be temporary”:
Shanghai is planning to build a 3,000-bed quarantine facility on the outskirts of the city, according to a report by Chinese media outlet Caixin. There are similar projects planned in other Chinese cities.
[…] In [Qinghai’s provincial capital] Xining, the troubles over food supplies started after the city shut down its primary wholesale food market on Oct. 20, after three positive cases were traced back to it. The whole city was put under lockdown the next day. The city conducted nine million Covid tests and found several dozen asymptomatic cases. More grocery stores were closed, adding pressure to prices already rising from the transportation costs pushed up by Covid restrictions in supplying regions.
Xining’s officials said the measures were vital to stop a variant that is extremely contagious. “Stop moving, now…that’s the top priority,” said Han Xingbin, a deputy mayor. “The inconvenience and the lack of freedom will only be temporary.” [Source]