Li Chajia owns guest houses in Sanya – the ‘Hawaii of China’, the city calls itself – and hoped for pent-up purchasing power from two pandemic years would be channeled to vacations there. After repeated lockdowns, the markets reopened at the end of September and food was allowed again.
Instead, China’s zero-covid campaign just got tougher and more extreme, being carried out nationwide with revolutionary zeal by local officials at the behest of the central government. After two cases were discovered in Sanya, officials there conducted massive tests and began quarantining tourists. The guest houses were empty during the October holidays.
“There was no soul on the beach,” said Li, 38. “This year has been particularly bad. Politics has had too much influence on the pandemic.”
China — one of the few countries still trying to eradicate the virus through aggressive lockdowns, mass quarantines and tight border controls — finds itself in a trap of its own. The zero-covid policy, once a point of pride, is wreaking havoc on the economy and disrupting individual lives. Less popular at home, it represents one of the biggest challenges Chinese leadership has faced since the start of the pandemic.
But completely lifting the policy could lead to disaster. China’s 1.4 billion people not only have little natural immunity due to a low infection rate, but have also been immunized with domestic vaccines that are less effective against newer, highly transmissible variants of the coronavirus. China never approved the use of mRNA vaccines deployed in the rest of the world.
“If they open now, there will be a major outbreak right away. But even if they don’t open, sooner or later there will be a major outbreak somewhere,” predicts virologist Jin Dongyan of Hong Kong University, who says the country’s approach is “unsustainable. I’m pretty sure someone has misjudged. They have misjudged the situation in the world and cannot get out of their own comfort zone.”
For many, that someone is Chinese President Xi Jinping, whose wisdom and experience are often seen as the driving force behind zero covid – “dynamic cleanup”, in government parlance. Under Xi, what started as a public health response has become an ideology, a way of distinguishing China from Western countries initially swept by cases and high death tolls.
Unconditional adherence to the policy is also a way to signal absolute loyalty to Xi. The public debate about pandemic measures, which are more common in the first two years, is virtually non-existent. Online criticism is censored.
At a much-anticipated Communist Party congress starting Sunday, Xi a third term as general secretary – head of the party – breaking with established norms with leaders resigning after two five-year terms. Ahead of the meeting, local officials pledged their allegiance to zero covid as their “most urgent mission”. For three consecutive days this week, the People’s Daily party spokesperson published editorials on why it should be followed.
“The fight 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 falter,” a comment Tuesday admonished.
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Despite such a vociferous defense of the policy, its costs are becoming increasingly apparent. Xi’s approach has a dent in consumer confidence and spending – essential to China’s move to move to a more consumer-led economy – while exacerbating problems such as rising youth unemployment and a deteriorating real estate market. The International Monetary Fund on Tuesday cut its growth forecast for China for 2022 to 3.2 percent, from a forecast of 8.1 percent last year.
The policy is “an important marker of Xi’s ability to guide the country through a crisis. Its success is inextricably linked to that of Xi’s rule,” said Diana Fu, an associate professor of political science at the University of Toronto.
At the start of the pandemic, China’s measures were among the strictest in the world, and were criticized for going too far in restricting residents’ movements. But in mid-2020, the nation declared victory over the virus. As China donated goods abroad, its covid response at home has been hailed as an example of its superior governance and care for its citizens.
Then the ommicron variant struck. In recent weeks, China has been battling new outbreaks, including from the highly transmissible BF.7-omicron sub-variant. At least 36 Chinese cities, accounting for nearly 200 million people, were closed in one way or another as of Monday.
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Officials in Shanghai have ordered all districts to conduct massive tests twice a week for the next month. The Xinjiang region has banned people from leaving. Inner Mongolia locked up 26 universities in the regional capital Hohhot, trapping more than 240,000 students and 15,000 faculty and staff on campus. In Zhengzhou, Henan Province, residents of one district were instructed to perform PCR tests twice a day for three days.
Schools in Xi’an were closed after several dozen cases were found in the city of 13 million. Areas in Yulin, Shaanxi conducted “lockdown exercises” for three days, despite no reported cases of coronavirus.
“They undergo the winner’s curse. Little did they know that the pandemic would last so long. Now they are constantly faced with this Sisyphean struggle,” said Yanzhong Huang, senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations.
As the rest of the world comes to live with the virus — including most of Asia — China’s isolation has deepened.
Some of the audience may be starting to lose patience. The brutal lockdowns have sparked a wave of interest in ‘runxue’, the study of running away. Video appeared online last week of a woman running through the streets of Shenzhen shouting, “Excessive covid controls. Give me back my freedom!”
And on Thursday, photos and video showed a hang banner on a bridge in Beijing’s Haidian district, the protest message read: “We want food, not PRC testing.” The images quickly disappeared Chinese social media sites.
The tragedy that occurred in September when a bus overturned and killed 27 people while taking them to a quarantine center in Guizhou still looms large. Students from Shanghai University of Finance and Economics argued with staff this week over being transported to quarantine sites late at night.
“Transparency is very important. We cannot accept these measures because we do not know what is going on. What we want is clarity about what is being done to us and a choice about it. Without it… it’s very difficult to build trust,” said one student, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals.
According to Jin in Hong Kong, a viable exit strategy would divert resources from lockdowns and mass testing and instead prepare healthcare infrastructure, particularly 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 that China is preparing to move in that direction. Liang Wannian, an epidemiologist and senior adviser to the government, said in a recent interview with state broadcaster CCTV that there is no timetable to deviate from current policy. “We have seen the dawn of victory, but we have not yet reached the other side of victory,” he said.
Xi had a similar message to members of the Politburo in July. “When outbreaks do occur, we have to control them strictly,” he said. “We can’t relax in battle.”
With the public having little choice but to cooperate and central leaders managing to blame local officials for poor implementation, the government feels little pressure to abandon policy. The latest count shows barely 5,200 dead.
“They have a lot of leeway and are not too concerned,” said Zhao Dahai, executive director of the Shanghai Jiao Tong University-Yale Joint Center for Health.
The fact that zero covid provides authorities with additional leverage for social scrutiny may be an additional factor in its staying power. In June, thousands of residents arrived in Henan province to protest against rural banks that had blocked their accounts. The protesters suddenly discovered that their health codes — a three-color system that tracks health status — had turned red, preventing them from traveling.
Li considers giving up the tourism industry and moving from Sanya back north to Harbin. She and her husband feel suffocated and exhausted by the demands of daily testing to send their daughter to school.
“It’s all about the pandemic,” she says. “We live under full surveillance.”
Lyric Li in Seoul and Vic Chiang in Taipei contributed to this report.