Chinese Public Is Divided Over the Zero-COVID Approach
FDuring the last two years, Chinese President Xi Jinping enjoyed a privilege not available to other leaders: a populace almost completely in agreement with his COVID-19 approach. In the past week however, censors took their foot off the pedal on Weibo for just a few hours, the extent of Xi’s new challenge became clear.
As case rates in Shanghai reach levels not seen since Wuhan in 2020, the Chinese public are having to make a fresh set of calculations, weighing up the human and economic costs of some of the world’s strictest lockdown measures. Online, some social media users blasted a policy that has cut many in Shanghai off from fresh food, medical care and, in the most extreme cases, their children—all while the city’s authorities claim there’s been just a handful of deaths from COVID-19.
Until recently, China’s zero-COVID policy—enforced by sealed borders and short, sharp lockdowns—had been an easy sell. The rest of the world was trapped in lockdowns while China’s government delivered something that was almost as ordinary.
The problem is that now, while other countries begin “living with the virus,” China’s central leadership remains bound both politically and practically to its zero-COVID strategy. It’s difficult to overstate the political legitimacy that has been staked on China’s ability to protect its population from the virus, not to mention the two years of high-profile firings that have incentivised local officials down the chain to pursue zero-COVID at all costs. And even if Xi was willing to take the political hit, the health system just isn’t up to the challenge: ICU capacity is just one tenth that of the U.S., and behind impressive overall vaccination rates lurks a figure to strike fear in the heart of any epidemiologist—only 51% of over-80s are fully vaccinated.
Yet while the authorities may be clear on China’s direction, the public is less convinced. Shanghai’s outbreak has exposed the human fallout of heavy-handed lockdown measures. While many apartment buildings have had difficulty accessing basic goods and others have experienced severe illness, some have not been able to receive routine medical care. One of the most controversial issues has been that children and their parents were separated from one another as part of a government policy to quarantine any positive cases.
It is clear that the virus does not cause as much damage to the human population. Gloating pundits seem to have conveniently forgotten the West’s own death rates in their rush to share videos—some of which are easily proven fakes—that show the supposed impending collapse of Xi’s regime.
But the authorities are still facing a serious problem. All of a sudden, social media users are openly discussing the possibilities of scrapping some of China’s strictest measures , or even moving towards living with the virus. Other people simply vent frustrations that they have accumulated over many months and weeks of living indoors. This is by no means a wholesale turn against China’s policy—there’s still no shortage of fierce zero-COVID loyalists—but it still would have been unthinkable just a few months ago.
Authorities could inadvertently encourage this polarisation. Consider Shanghai’s staggeringly low rate of symptomatic cases—on April 5th, as cases soared, just 322 out of nearly 20,000 reported cases were classed as symptomatic, compared to a rough rate of 50% elsewhere in China and abroad. Although mass testing can detect cases that are otherwise undetected, it is not the only reason. There is also a deliberately high threshold for classifying cases. Shanghai authorities insisting that only those with symptoms resembling pneumonia are treated as confirmed cases of symptomatic disease may help keep the headline numbers artificially low. But it will make life more complicated long-term. How can you justify using such harsh measures when you have a condition you believe is completely asymptomatic.
Authorities face a similar Catch-22 on deaths. Despite repeated anecdotal reports of deaths in elder care facilities, and more than 320,000 cases, Shanghai’s official death rate for this wave still sits at 17. It’s no surprise that local officials have been reluctant to announce the city’s first deaths on their watch but refusing the public transparency on the real risks of Omicron will do little to encourage China’s 17 million unvaccinated over-80s to come forward for vital jabs.
This mix messaging will likely lead to a growing divide in the public’s opinion. Already social media users are beginning to accuse each other of belonging to opposing “zero tolerance” or “co-existence” camps. And while infections in Shanghai may be passing their peak, the debate won’t be going anywhere. New outbreaks are beginning to pop up across the country, promising new challenges if they spread to under-resourced cities and rural areas—or to the political centre of Beijing.
Local governments across the country will be learning from Shanghai’s mistakes, and antiviral drugs will help cushion the blow of new outbreaks, but neither will address China’s underlying issue: a distinct lack of an exit strategy. Without a plan at the top, there will be more debate and discord at grassroots levels.
Two years of genuinely world-leading success means China, understandably, doesn’t take kindly to international moralising about its approach to COVID-19. But it does have to listen to its own people—and it looks like they could be about to head in very different directions.
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