Shanghai, China’s bustling cosmopolis of 26 million, has been under lockdown since late March under the nation’s strict “dynamic zero-Covid” protocols. The system is so poorly managed that residents are frequently unable to access basic necessities like food, medications, and medical care, prompting fairly widespread, spontaneous protests online and in real life.
The government has touted the zero-Covid strategy, the government’s system of containment using intensive testing and tracing, combined with partial or complete lockdowns when a case is detected, has kept case counts and deaths low over the past two years. But the reports coming out of Shanghai suggest that the local government was unprepared for an outbreak in the country’s economic center and cast doubt on the feasibility of zero Covid at this point in the pandemic. That has translated into serious struggles for residents, including hourslong ambulance wait times, dwindling savings, and inadequate or rotten food supplies, among others. Although the central government is reportedly stepping up efforts to get supplies to the city, the overall policy is driving many residents to criticize the government’s policy — and Shanghai’s implementation of it — despite serious potential risks to their safety and freedom by doing so.
“Even the authoritarian governments, they still have to take this mass reaction into account, or else will lose the cooperation from the society. We’re going to expect that [the central government] is going to improve the policy implementation, even though the policy itself is not going to change,” Yanzhong Huang, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations, told Vox on Friday.
The Shanghai outbreak is thus far China’s most serious since the beginning of the pandemic; a staggering 200,000 cases have been reported since the outbreak started in March, though that’s likely under-reported, according to the New York Times. What started as a patchwork of temporary lockdowns to limit the spread of disease quickly turned into an interminable, city-wide shutdown with people only allowed out to take PCR tests, as a New York magazine piece explained earlier this week. Shanghai’s lockdown, two years into the pandemic, is rivaled only by those in Wuhan in 2020 and Xi’an at the end of last year in terms of strictness.
Shanghai residents’ outrage — which they’ve expressed by singing and chanting from their balconies and co-opting anti-American hashtags used by government officials to criticize the US — is born from the fact that the government isn’t providing the stability it promises in exchange for personal freedoms, according to Rui Zhong, program associate at the Wilson Center’s Kissinger Institute on China and the United States. “I think what makes people angry in Shanghai, and what made people angry in Xi’an, is Covid has been a problem for years,” she told Vox. “I think they’ve been really stunned at the degree to which their local officials haven’t necessarily prepared, including non-supply-chain issues,” like hospital admissions.
Still, the government is asking citizens to sacrifice, without yet having the capacity to ensure access to food and medical care. On Thursday, people in the city’s Pudong district protested residential buildings being taken over by the local government for the purposes of quarantining those who had tested positive. Footage of the incident circulated around Chinese social media before being censored, showing health authorities wrangling protesters to the ground and taking them to a white van, while others shouted, “Bring them back!” The video also captured residents saying, “The police are hitting people,” according to NBC.
There’s been a fundamental breakdown of the zero-Covid policy
Shanghai’s local government enjoys a degree of relative autonomy in the context of President Xi Jinping’s China; it’s technically directly under the control of the central government, as a province-level city, but enjoys special status as the country’s financial hub and a showpiece for the rest of the world. Until March, the local government had handled the pandemic well, with no major outbreaks. But the rapid onset of the omicron variant and the corresponding draconian government measures are pushing some citizens to the brink.
“I have no more money … What am I to do? I don’t care anymore,” one man shouts to his whole building in a viral video on Weibo, China’s answer to Twitter. “Just let the Communist Party take me.”
Zhong told Vox she had heard similar stories of desperation coming from Shanghai. “I was listening to a recording of an elderly man who was asking about his heart medication to a local cadre, a local CCP official,” she said. “He was basically saying, ‘We have hundreds of these types of cases per day, and I understand, but I can’t do anything.’ A lot of the immediate pressure goes on at the most local levels — a lot of emotional conversations, like ‘I am starving,’ or ‘I just got food but the food is all rotten,’ or ‘I need medication.’ So these are all very, very basic material needs. So people are very emotional that they can’t purchase them, and they don’t have a timetable for when they get these necessities again.”
Wednesday’s New York magazine dispatch from Shanghai describes neighborhoods and residential complexes bound together via WeChat, which as Zhong said, is “an operating system” which serves as a messaging platform, payment system, and more, and is ubiquitous in China. Volunteers are stepping up where the government has failed, organizing large wholesale grocery orders for their buildings, helping administer Covid-19 tests, and organizing medical care for those in need. Shanghai’s Covid-19 response system has relied on volunteer efforts throughout the pandemic, to support data collection, contact tracing, and elder care. That worked in the days before omicron, the incredibly virulent strain of the disease, began ripping through densely populated areas. That, combined with less-efficacious vaccines and lower overall vaccination rates due to the government’s Covid-19 policy, particularly among the elderly, to protect against the virus, was too much for the zero-Covid system to bear.
“Many Shanghai people blame the local government officials for mishandling the crisis, the coordination problems, lack of contingency planning, these issues. Which might be true,” Huang said. “But it is interesting how, within a month, Shanghai degenerated from a poster child of the pandemic control to a pariah of the Covid response.”
Although the local bureaucrats have borne the brunt of people’s frustration, both Zhong and Huang told Vox, they might not necessarily be the ones to blame for the current crisis. “I think in Shanghai, if you measure state capacity in terms of the fiscal capacity, in terms of also the quality of the bureaucratic officials, the capabilities of the local government officials, I think it’s still relatively high,” Huang said. “I think the fundamental issue remains the zero-Covid strategy itself.”
It’s easy, and to an extent even logical, to blame supply chain strain — a global problem throughout the pandemic — for lack of access to food and medicine, but it doesn’t work the same way when the problem is getting an ambulance to come to address an emergency, or getting access to a hospital bed. “The problem is not lack of capacity, but the single-minded pursuit of zero Covid,” Huang told Vox.
“I think what makes some of the outcry in Shanghai distinctive is, the grievances are not new,” according to Zhong. Previous lockdowns in Wuhan and Xi’an produced some of the same effects, albeit at a smaller scale, she told Vox. “You had these gaps in care, services for people, so, making sure everybody gets their prescription medication, making sure that food supply lines are okay, making sure that people who need to go to a hospital for non-Covid emergencies have options. Some of these problems go back as far as Wuhan in 2020.”
Protests are getting attention, but will they make a difference?
Both Zhong and Huang told Vox that the protests against the Shanghai lockdown — in person and online — are spontaneous, rather than an organized effort. “In terms of protests, anything that’s really organized, centralized, or has some kind of clear leader or group, those are really, really difficult to organize in China because anybody that seems to be a protest leader basically paints a target in terms of law enforcement,” Zhong said. “It’s sort of tacitly known in mainland China that something, even to the degree of 2014 or 2019 Hong Kong protests, are really difficult to materialize because of the quick law enforcement responses.”
As authorities’ response to Thursday’s protest shows, law enforcement and government reaction is indeed swift; whether it’s shuffling screaming protesters into white vans, banning hashtags, or censoring videos, the Chinese government has little appetite for dissent.
“When people take to social media, it’s not the first resort people want, because social media is so easily identifiable and people don’t want their accounts shuttered,” Zhong noted. However, there are online efforts to use the government’s own online tools against it, she told Vox: “People are doing really unorthodox things, like using hashtags that state government typically uses to say how bad America is — except to complain about Shanghai.”
Social media also serves as an important form of record-keeping, which is important in a state known for repressive censorship. The online so-called “lockdown diary” has been part of the Chinese public’s response to Covid-19 and the government’s containment policy since the very beginning, Zhong said. “It’s a form of record-keeping for people, to say, ‘This is what happened. This is what happened to my mother, my grandmother.’ Or, ‘This official was pushed so hard and pressured so hard that they took their own life,’” she said.
As to whether this outburst of desperation and dissatisfaction could portend further, more sustained protests, Zhong is circumspect; it’s far too early to tell what effect the Shanghai protests will have on the city’s future, the zero-Covid policy, or the nation. But it does open a window for criticism of the policy, as Huang noted.
“There’s already more than 44 cities that have been under full or partial lockdowns, and many more cities have started mass PCR testing that impose limits on people’s movements. It’s fair to say that a large percentage of the population has been affected by this policy,” he said. And that criticism does, at least, push the government to improve delivery of core goods and services, if only to ensure stability and quiet dissent, Huang said.
But ultimately, though experts within and outside the government — as well as China’s own citizens — are saying that the zero-Covid policy no longer works in a radically different pandemic landscape, adjustments and concessions from the government won’t alter the core policy. It’s too tied to the “superiority of the Chinese model,” as Huang said. “It’s certainly a strong incentive to continue that success, because the failure would mean that you essentially give up halfway through, and all this legacy will be gone. But in the meantime, I think it is less about legacy, the policy, and more about not allowing the perceived failure to undermine personal leadership or regime legitimacy.”