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Xi’an Lockdown: Beijing Continues to Pursue “Zero-Covid”

With the Winter Olympics quickly approaching, China faces great internal stress for its strict COVID response

First, I hoped to escape lockdown
Later, I hoped to get out to buy food
Now, I only hope I’m not hauled off

a poem widely shared on Weibo about Xi’an; translated and reported by China Digital Times

Rather than shifting gears, as much of the world has, Beijing continues to chase its zero-covid agenda. But the Chinese government’s heavy-handed measures to control the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, and its messaging to the public to justify those measures, may have backfired. China is beholden to its “zero-Covid” strategy as the February 2nd opening ceremonies for the Beijing Winter Olympics nears and the Omicron variant spreads across the world. 

The Chinese Communist Party constructed a narrative early in the pandemic claiming that China had defeated the virus thanks to Xi Jinping’s leadership and its superior form of governance compared to democratic countries. However, its hard lockdowns and isolation methods, coupled with a vaccine that does not work well against the Omicron and Delta variants, has left its population vulnerable to infection.

The Party must continue with its “zero-Covid” measures both to save face internationally and to placate domestic backlash.

As of this writing, Xi’an’s strict lockdown has been partially lifted and public transportation services have resumed. This is after the city, with a population of almost 13 million, was locked down for several weeks. 

The Associated Press reported on January 11 that two more cities were put in lockdown, placing 20 million people in home confinement. Then Tianjin, a port and manufacturing city south of Beijing was placed on partial lockdown. Other cities and locations have since been placed on total or partial lockdown, including parts of Beijing, Shanghai, and Shenzhen.

Yanzhong Huang of the Council on Foreign Relations told Reuters that China has backed itself into a corner: 

Beijing seems to be confident that stringent pandemic control measures will still work…But with a large population that does not have immunity against COVID-19, it should be easy for this new variant to quickly multiply and spread in China.

David Stanway, “Analysis: China’s ‘zero-COVID’ campaign under strain as Omicron surges” at Reuters

Reuters also points to the 2022 risk assessment report from the U.S. investment think tank, Eurasia Group:

“The initial success of zero COVID-19 and Xi’s personal attachment to it makes it impossible to change course,” it said.

“China’s policy will fail to contain infections, leading to larger outbreaks, requiring, in turn, more severe lockdowns,” it said, predicting greater economic disruptions and rising public dissatisfaction.

David Stanway, “Analysis: China’s ‘zero-COVID’ campaign under strain as Omicron surges” at Reuters

Omicron and the Failure of China’s Health Code App

The data from South Africa, the U.K., and the U.S. show that the Omicron variant is highly contagious, but it is less likely to result in severe cases compared to Delta. Additionally, the Omicron variant can cause mild breakthrough cases in those who are vaccinated or have had Covid-19 in the past. 

Vaccines are still effective in inducing milder symptoms and medical professionals have better methods for treating Covid-19. These factors have led most countries to abandon hard lockdowns or stay-in-place orders, opting for a more “endemic” mentality of mitigating spread. 

China is the exception. 

In Xi’an, it was 2020 all over again. On December 22 Xi’an’s 13 million people were placed under a strict lockdown. People were not permitted to leave their homes for food and had to wait for delivery services, which were delayed to the point that some were bartering for staple food items. 

Public transportation stopped and those that were sick or had been exposed were placed in quarantine centers, sometimes against their will. According to China Digital Times, locals were given no warning and transported to a quarantine center, what locals on social media called “getting hauled off.” Others who wanted to quarantine to prevent spread to their families were denied access and told to stay at home. One man reportedly tried to protect his family by leaving, but after authorities denied his request, all six members of his family tested positive with Covid-19.

Much of the chaos in Xi’an was due to the health code app crashing because of high volume. The app tracks in real time whether a person has been near someone with Covid-19. The person’s Covid status changes based on level of potential exposure with a color code system (red, yellow, and green) indicating how free they are to go places. The code may change if someone lives in the same building as another person with Covid, or if someone lives in an area with a high number of cases. The app has also been used to place people in lockdown for non-Covid reasons. Chinese spokespersons touted the app as China’s high-tech solution to tracking Covid and winning the “war on the virus.” According to Protocol, the app crashed twice, the second time when high-ranking officials from Beijing were visiting Xi’an.

The technology problems, as well as the local government’s swift widespread lockdown, led to a cascade of problems. There have been reports of food shortages and preferential treatment for government officials as well as hospitals turning away non-Covid patients. A woman who was eight-months pregnant lost her baby because she could not get care until she provided a negative Covid test. This woman’s story served as a flashpoint for online anger:

On Wednesday, anger spread nationwide, with social-media expressions of outrage in response to a video showing a woman sitting outside a hospital, with a pool of blood at her feet. In the one-minute video, people identifying themselves as family members describe how the woman was kept waiting outside the hospital for two hours, allegedly because her most recent Covid-19 test was a couple of hours too old.

Liyan Qi, “Anger at Xi’an Lockdown Spreads in China” at The Wall Street Journal

The Wall Street Journal reports that another woman had a similar experience after she was turned away from two hospitals.

One woman reported on social media that her father died from a heart attack because hospitals did not want to treat someone who lived in a moderately-risky area of the city. And a boy with leukemia was unable to get his cancer treatment until people pressured the hospital to admit him. 

China Digital Times reports that angry residents are berating officials for only caring about whether people die from Covid, while other deaths apparently “don’t count.” The comments on a live stream about the pandemic situation lit up with so many complaints that the station had to turn the comments off. Additionally, Chinese residents disparaged the government’s staged video of workers clad in hazmat suits creating an unnecessary food chain as propaganda.

Beijing Is Stuck In Its Own Narrative

In 2020, the Chinese propaganda department began re-writing the narrative around the Covid-19 pandemic. The pandemic began in Wuhan, and whether one believes the virus jumped from animal to humans in a wet market or a laboratory, or was the result of a laboratory incident, most agree that the Chinese Communist Party’s authoritarian-style government incentivized hiding the outbreak and not reporting early cases of the SARS-like pneumonia to the China CDC and the World Health Organization.

Global perceptions of China were already at a low point because of diminished freedoms in Hong Kong and human rights violations in Xinjiang. Domestically, the Chinese people were angry over the harsh lockdown measures in Wuhan and the complacency of the local government in the early days of the pandemic. 

By March 2020, the Chinese government had constructed a new narrative that said rather than the authoritarian government being responsible for the global pandemic, it was the authoritarian system that defeated the virus. The Central Propaganda Department, the Information Office of the State Council, and China’s International Communications Center published the book A Battle Against Epidemic: China Combating Covid-19 in 2020, which would have been translated into several languages had publication not been halted. It touted how the Chinese government, led by General Secretary Xi Jinping, has faced the Covid-19 epidemic with “wisdom and effectiveness.” 

Geremie R. Barmé, editor of China Heritage in Australia, has a helpful op-ed in the New York Times that outlines some of the criticisms of the book and the Party’s propaganda attempts within mainland China.

Beijing is now promoting the narrative that Omicron came to the capital city by a contaminated package from Canada. China is the only country asserting that the SARS-CoV-2 virus can survive on surfaces or through cold-chain supply lines and that someone can get Covid-19 from contact with those surfaces. Studies continue to affirm that SARS-CoV-2 spreads through air droplets.

While the Party would like to convince the world and Chinese citizens that its authoritarian measures are the only way to defeat the virus, the virus, it seems, did not get the message.

Heather Zeiger

Heather Zeiger is a freelance science writer in Dallas, TX. She has advanced degrees in chemistry and bioethics and writes on the intersection of science, technology, and society. She also serves as a research analyst with The Center for Bioethics & Human Dignity. Heather writes for bioethics.com, Salvo Magazine, and her work has appeared in RelevantMercatorNet, Quartz, and The New Atlantis.

Xi’an Lockdown: Beijing Continues to Pursue “Zero-Covid”