China’s Zero-COVID Policy

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S1: If you were to walk me down the streets of Shanghai right now, what would it be like? It sounds like you have friends there.

S2: I have quite a few friends there, I think.

S1: Dake Kang reports on China for the Associated Press.

S2: I think if you walk down the streets of Shanghai, you’d be very quiet. For most of the contemporary. You know, some people from Shanghai kind of had this attitude of, oh, you know, look at the rest of China. They have such crude COVID controls, but we don’t have to deal with that kind of stuff.

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S1: Huh?

S2: Not anymore. Obviously.

S1: Not anymore, Dake says, because for the last month, Shanghai has been in varying degrees of coronavirus lockdown as COVID surged. The authorities say those lockdowns are getting lifted now. But even so.

S2: In theory, the Shanghai government might let you out in your compound. Or you might even be allowed out on the streets and go shopping or out for walks in kind of a limited fashion. But in practice. People I talked to in that last category who in theory are supposed to be able to go out, aren’t really being allowed to go out.

S1: What happens when they try?

S2: Yeah, their local neighborhood committees are often paranoid. Their number one priority is keep COVID cases to zero.

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S1: And the people who are testing positive, they get sent to citywide quarantine centers to wait the virus out.

S2: We talked to a few of these people in these kind of mass quarantine centers. And, you know, the situation sounded kind of crude for them.

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S1: How did the authorities even know you tested positive?

S2: Well, so every day Shanghai or Shanghai residents are being ordered to undergo nucleic acid testing. So they have to go downstairs. They have to wait in line. They get their throat swabbed or their nose swabbed. And the government collects all of these results and any positive cases. They ring up the person in question and they say, you know, off to the quarantine center. People don’t have a choice.

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S1: The stories you’re telling me from China are just so different from how things are going in the U.S. And I’m not saying that one approach is good or bad. You maybe could, but it just seems like the emphasis on control is extreme. But in the U.S., so many people are basically declaring themselves done with COVID and moving on. How is China able to continue like this?

S2: I think that’s a question many people in China are asking themselves. But unfortunately, this question, whether Zero-Covid is sustainable or not, has become a rather politically dicey one because the central leadership under President Xi Jinping has made it pretty clear that Zero-Covid is going to be the way.

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S1: Whether you like it or not.

S2: Whether you like it or not. Exactly.

S1: Today on the show, many in China don’t like this zero-covid policy very much. Does it matter? I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to What next? Stick around. Dake Kang usually reports from Beijing, but I reached him in Vancouver. He’d already been planning to leave China to see family, but the spreading lockdowns bumped up his timeline.

S2: We started hearing noises about Beijing having more and more cases and the government sending these signals that, oh, maybe we’re going to tighten controls. And I called up a friend in Shanghai and he was just like, Take it out immediately. So I rebook to my flight and got out faster.

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S1: It’s really fascinating to me how the Zero-Covid approach evolved over the course of the pandemic. Like, my understanding is that, you know, it started with the lockdown in Wuhan and then the government kept adding these layers of surveillance on top, like digital surveillance, where you’d have to have these QR codes scanned to like get into public places or even where your local party official was kind of monitoring and looking out for you. Can you explain the evolution of zero COVID?

S2: Yeah, sure. I mean, I think in the beginning, the government basically scrambled to figure out ways of tracking people and doing contact tracing and stuff like that. I mean, Chinese cities are divided up into very, very small administrative units, a form of micro districts. And there are officials at very, very low levels that are responsible for managing these neighborhoods. It’s just like a layer of government that doesn’t exist in the U.S. or with other Western countries. The government relied on these officials heavily to basically monitor people, check in with them, make sure they’re not showing any symptoms. They would issue these little cards that would allow us to come in and out of our compounds and stuff like that. As time went on, it became more sophisticated. They came up with what we call health codes, where it’s an app on your smartphone, you take it out, you scan it, and it automatically logs the location that you’ve visited and sends it to a central database. If someone happens to test positive, the authorities can go and look at their location history and then see everyone that they’ve come into contact with and say, hey, listen, you know, there was a person with COVID near you. You need to go quarantine or you need to go get tested or, you know, whatever it is.

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S1: It was in this way that the public health crisis started eroding some of the privacy Chinese citizens enjoyed. But Dick says in the beginning, most people accepted this tradeoff, especially when they saw the way China was able to open up again while the pandemic raged on in the West. The appearance of al-Muqrin, though, changed the calculus.

S2: This variant is much more infectious than what came before it. It’s also less deadly. But unfortunately for for China, what worked before against less infectious variants of the virus didn’t really work against American. And so China started having to do a lot more lockdowns. There were just more cases appearing. It would tend to spread out of control faster. And China was locking down more and more cities because they would just get out of control. And, you know, they absolutely could not tolerate any new cases.

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S1: How long did it take for this zero-covid policy? To get to Shanghai.

S2: Well, I mean, basically, you have this new variant, it’s spreading around. Cities are getting locked down. And then it gets to Shanghai, one of the most cosmopolitan and open cities in China. You know, it has this reputation of having a really good health care system relative to the rest of China. And then it also has real economic importance. And so officials are really reluctant to lock down the city, and they’re much more confident than other cities that they’re going to be able to deal with COVID without having to implement extremely strict restrictions. So cases start to rise and they start doing the thing where they try locking down individual neighborhoods or testing people, and they just assume that otherwise they’ll be fine. But it’s not fine because this variant is way too infectious. You know, there’s this kind of clear seesaw going back and forth at a certain point where officials are debating what to do about the rising case count. At a certain point, there’s a rumor going around towards the end of March that Shanghai might lock down because of these cases. And since the authorities actually come out and they say, no, that’s a rumor, we don’t have any plans to lockdown, and a few days later they lock down.

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S1: What do you make of that?

S2: We don’t necessarily know the full story, but there was clearly some behind the scenes stuff going on where some people in the government clearly did not want to lockdown. And at a certain point, the central government basically stepped in and said, no, you have to get this under control. You have to implement through a permit. And they sent a top official from Beijing down to Shanghai. And all of a sudden the restrictions get much, much stricter.

S1: How did people in Shanghai react? To that.

S2: I would say part of the reason why the Shanghai locked down was so excruciating compared to other places was because city officials coming out publicly and saying it’s all rumors that we’re going to have a lockdown and then a few days later they have a lockdown. And that leaves a lot of people unprepared. And also, when the authorities first announced the lockdown, they said, oh, you know, this is going to be eight day lockdown. Half the city for four days, the other half of the city for four days. So it kind of lulled people into thinking that this was going to be a really quick thing. They were just going to sit in their apartment for a week and that would be the end. Well, it turned out that it wasn’t because these softer measures were not bringing down the number of COVID cases. And the COVID case count is really exploding at this point. You know, you’re seeing tens of thousands of cases a day.

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S1: Yeah, well, the United States just passed this 1 million deaths number. China was nowhere near that ever.

S2: Right. So, I mean, you know, if you want to compare things to the US, obviously the US in the virus is just totally out of control. The US is just basically choosing to live with the virus. And in China, they still have zero-covid. So what seems like shockingly high case counts in China is just another day in America. Right.

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S1: Here’s a question I have, though, about those numbers. Do we even really know how bad things are, COVID wise in China or Shanghai specifically? Like you wrote this article where you noted that even people who die in an isolation center are clearly sent there because they were COVID positive. They might not have their deaths classified as COVID deaths. Why not?

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S2: Hmm. I mean, you know, oftentimes it’s not any kind of top level conspiracy where people at the top are trying to make the, you know, duke the numbers to make it look better. What’s going on is people at the lower levels have these very clear incentives to prevent bad information from going up to the top or becoming public, because then they’ll get fired or punished. And so it results in lower death toll than what would otherwise be reported.

S1: So why won’t China shift gears here? Turns out it all comes down to politics. More Dake Kang after a break. The Chinese government’s unyielding commitment to the Zero-Covid policy, even now that the pandemic has entered a new phase for much of the world, can leave a lot of observers scratching their heads. But Dake says it makes more sense if you consider the political moment. The countries in the Chinese Communist Party is heading into what’s called the party Congress an extremely sensitive moment when leadership across the party transitions to new hands, except Chinese President Xi Jinping is trying to hold on to his seat. And that means that leading up to this meeting, he is single mindedly focused on stability.

S2: Every five years, the Chinese Communist Party has a big meeting where they set, you know, a new five year plans. Every ten years, they have a leadership transition in theory. You know, Chinese President Xi Jinping would be stepping down this year and making way for a new leader.

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S1: Does he want to do that?

S2: He changed the Constitution in 2018 to get rid of term limits. And almost everyone believe that he’s basically angling for a third term and nobody knows how long he intends to stay in power.

S1: So the president himself has a lot at stake here.

S2: Yeah, it’s a very important meeting because he’s going to pick out who he wants as his top underlings. So even if there’s tons of protests, even if there’s people locked in their homes, crying out about how they can go to the hospital or the how they can’t get regular food deliveries, I mean, political stability is paramount.

S1: But that doesn’t mean stability for everyday people, it sounds like.

S2: No, absolutely not. I mean, that’s basically the way the entire system works.

S1: One fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations noted that this kind of top down approach from President Xi, it reminded him of Mao. He compared it to Mao’s Great Leap Forward and this sort of top down approach to try to change how the country worked, which really didn’t work. And, you know, he was sort of thinking of it as having, you know, sort of foreshadowing there. But I don’t know if you would agree with that.

S2: I would say that under the current leadership, China has really taken a drastic turn towards becoming more authoritarian. So the current leader, Xi Jinping, is really someone who seems to emphasize control above all else. He’s really consolidated and centralized power, and he’s probably accurately described as being China’s most authoritarian leader since Mao. So I wouldn’t say that China is anywhere near great leap for conditions or anything of the sort where, you know, the country really ended up starving millions of people to death because they wanted to suppress, you know, the UK in steel production by making all these farmers melt steel in their homes. But at the same time, there are certain parallels that I can see there where the leadership approximates a policy and everyone has to follow it, even if it doesn’t make sense. And that is inclined to kind of in fact, what we’re seeing with Zero-Covid. You know, all these health experts say Zero-Covid doesn’t really make sense anymore. You know, vaccinate all of your elderly and vulnerable people and then just let the virus rip at this point.

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S1: Yeah, that was a question I had looking at what was happening in Shanghai. Like why? Why not a mass vaccination campaign rather than a, you know, having these centers where people would have to isolate?

S2: There is an argument to be made that, you know, zero-covid makes sense because of the relatively low vaccination rate. I mean, you can you can vaccinate people in Shanghai because Shanghai has a very good health infrastructure, but it’s harder to reach elderly people or vulnerable people in the countryside.

S1: So basically just it’s such a massive country that it’s hard to do something like that.

S2: Yeah, it would be a lot more convincing, however, if we saw signs that China was embarking on a mass vaccination campaign in the rest of the country in order to prepare for an eventual reopening. And we don’t really see that. And on top of that, you know, China’s vaccines, while they work and they have shown to be effective, they are not the most effective. The most effective vaccines are the Imani vaccines, you know, Pfizer, Moderna. And to this day, the Chinese government has not approved use of those vaccines for what seem to be clearly political reasons. And that’s another reason why there’s a lack of confidence in opening up, because the Chinese vaccines are not necessarily going to be as effective at preventing the spread of COVID or protecting people against being hospitalized.

S1: You’ve alluded to frustration in a place like Shanghai to the kind of lockdown that they’re experiencing right now. And I’ve seen a lot of reporting on this frustration. You know, The Washington Post just had an article talking about the strict COVID policies are prompting rumblings of discontent. Is the way they put it in China. But I’m curious to talk to you about how far you think these rumblings of discontent will go. Maybe we should start with just what they’ve looked like. Like, I know there have been videos that have gone viral, so how have we been able to see how unhappy people are?

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S2: I mean, I think the discontent against the lockdown was clearest at the very beginning because beginning of the lockdown was disastrous, especially in the logistical failings. People some people were just not getting food. One of my friends there said that they just didn’t get food deliveries for eight days. And if they hadn’t stocked up, they would have been starving in their homes. There were protests, actually, that broke out in, you know, individual compounds where people would be yelling at their neighborhood committee or yelling at their local officials. And I think in the frustration at the beginning, these kind of videos, these kinds of images would spread everywhere across the Chinese Internet.

S1: There’s this one video that caught my attention called Voices of April. And the reason it got my attention was because it actually wasn’t particularly visual, like it was just the skyline of Shanghai. And then you’d hear people’s voices very upset about the lockdown.

S3: You this was accused of being on a yearly meal tour.

S1: I guess it was surprising to me that this video had spread so far when I’m I’m used to Internet videos having to have a strong visual component to actually, you know, go anywhere. But it just shows you how salient what people were saying was.

S2: Yeah. I mean, it was really poignant for someone who was living in Shanghai because it was just a reminder of all the frustrations they had gone through and all the videos they had seen and all the recordings. I mean, you know, these are people sobbing on the phone over the hardships that they’re facing.

S3: What it shows you how it doesn’t look. Okay. Did you feel.

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S2: When this video started spreading? People were watching it and they were like, oh, my God, I can’t believe how much we’ve gone through. And it turned into this kind of politicized thing where it was spreading. I mean, I remember that day very clearly. It was all over WeChat moments, you know, kind of like my social media timeline. You’d scroll through and everyone was posting it and then you’d get all deleted.

S1: Huh?

S2: It was being censored by the authorities. But people would find ways of getting around that and the post it again, and then it got deleted again. But, you know, it’s this kind of like silent kind of digital protest that’s going on.

S1: It’s like it’s unstoppable. Like, you can put it up. Take it down. Put it up. Take it down.

S2: Yeah.

S3: I’m going to let you go. And in the end. Yeah, I’m really telling you a short. Minimal. No mention.

S1: I wonder if we can talk a little bit about the importance of all of this protest happening in Shanghai. I saw one person talk about how the kind of restrictions you’re seeing in Shanghai, mirror restrictions that the chinese government has put in place other places like in weaker territories. But. It hits different when you’re in Shanghai and you’re used to some level of privilege. I wonder if you can talk about that kind of disconnect and how important it is to how China’s seeing the moves the government’s making right now.

S2: Shanghai is home to, you know, some of China’s wealthiest people, most educated people, most cosmopolitan people. And for a lot of them, living in Shanghai is kind of like living in a foreign country, almost. And so I think, you know, they had this easy confidence that life would be fine and they don’t necessarily see how difficult it can be for less privileged members of Chinese society. But, you know, this lockdown is making some of them contemplate leaving China. And I know that because I know people personally who are basically trying to get out of China and possibly not come back.

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S1: It’s interesting that the people, you know are considering leaving, because I feel like there have been these moments in the last decade or two in China where it seems like things have come to a head, like whether you’re talking about the earthquake, for instance, and all those buildings that collapsed, the children who were killed, and how parents there became so upset at the government. And I didn’t hear people talking about leaving then, you know, but they were angry at the government. They were trying to get the government to do something. Do you think people in Shanghai who are going through this lockdown just feel like pushing back against the government is folly?

S2: Mm. I think every time some big disaster or failing of the government comes to light, there’s this idea that maybe this is going to be a threat to the Communist Party’s hold on power. Maybe this will topple the government. We see that every time there’s some kind of major problem. But the fact of the matter is, all of those critics have been proven wrong. I mean, the Chinese government has proven incredibly resilient in the face of multiple challenges and its grip on power has never really been shaken. This whole notion that because of this, the party is going to topple from power, I mean, the historical record seems pretty clear on that. And I think for individual people, this is really an individual choice. If you feel like you can’t live with these kinds of restrictions, then it makes sense to leave. And I think some people are especially panicked because the Chinese government has actually imposed restrictions on their own people leaving China. So now they say if you’re not leaving for essential reasons like studying abroad or because you have a job abroad, you can’t leave.

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S1: Hmm.

S2: I know people who have been turned away from the border. And, you know, that’s that’s kind of deeply scary for someone who wants to go abroad. You’re being told all of a sudden, oh, you can’t leave town anymore. Can you imagine what that would be like in the US as people were simply told, You can’t leave America anymore? And so, you know, I think among the more cosmopolitan members of Chinese society, it’s accelerating the sense that, oh, maybe, maybe it’s time to leave.

S1: How long do you think Zero-Covid can last?

S2: That is a great question. I have no idea how long Zero-Covid can last. I think at the beginning of the lockdown, there was this debate about, you know, can these restrictions really control American? And I mean, it seems like the answer is basically yes, but at an incredibly high cost, the economy is really tanking. But, you know, at the same time, it seems like the government is pretty determined to continue it. So, you know, the best guess is that after the political Congress this year, they’re going to lighten up finally and maybe chart a course out of the recovery. But honestly, it is anyone’s guess. And I don’t think it’s possible to know.

S1: Dake Kang. I’m really grateful for your time. Thanks for coming on the show.

S2: Thanks.

S1: Dake Kang is a journalist in the AP’s Beijing bureau. And that’s our show. What next is produced by Alan Schwarz, Mary Wilson and Carmel Delshad. We are getting a ton of help these days from Sam Kim and Anna Rubanova. We are led by Joanne Levine and Alicia montgomery. And I’m Mary Harris. You can go track me down on Twitter, say hello. I’m at Mary’s desk. Thanks for listening. I’m leaving the show in the capable hands of Lizzie O’Leary. And what next, TBD? And I’ll get you back here on Monday.