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China’s Covid Theater: It’s Not Really About the Disease

Not exactly. As the Twentieth National Congress looms, the Chinese Communist Party does not want any COVID in Beijing
Red banners atop the National People`s Congress in Beijing, China

The Chinese Communist Party’s zero-Covid policy, heralded by Xi Jinping, is killing China’s economy and sinking citizens’ morale. Zero-Covid is viewed as a litmus test for support for the Communist Party, and Xi Jinping in particular. The goal is not saving lives but ensuring that the virus does not spread to Beijing ahead of the twentieth National Congress on October 16. Some hope that restrictions will ease after the National Congress. Others are less optimistic.

The CCP under Xi Jinping declared “war on the virus” two years ago but the casualties in the Party’s pathogenic war have been the Chinese people. In the lead-up to the Twentieth National Congress in which Xi Jinping will announce his third term as General Secretary and leader of the Communist Party of China, the country has maintained “dynamic zero Covid.” Multiple weekly tests, health checkpoints, health code apps, and abrupt lockdowns are now a way of life for people throughout China.

Vivian Wang, reporting from Shenzhen for the New York Times, wrote of her experience living with China’s zero-Covid policy:

The disruptive becomes typical; the once-unimaginable, reality. The pandemic has imposed new rituals around the world, but in China, the extremes make that process more unsettling…For many Chinese, the past few years of the pandemic have stirred the spectrum of emotions from anger to frustration to grief. But the first word many people reach for, when I ask how they feel, is helplessness.

Vivien Wang, “In China, Living Not “With Covid,” but With “Zero Covid”” at New York Times (October 1, 2022)

Wang outlines how her life is lived from test to test: long lines at lunch breaks to get a daily Covid test and adjusting to the seemingly random selection on her health-code app for a four-day quarantine. She knows which testing site has the fastest results and which way to go home so she goes through fewer health checkpoints. The most jarring aspects of the changes under zero Covid are technological:

China under “zero Covid” is a web of digital codes. At the entrance to every public space — restaurants, apartment complexes, even public restrooms — is a printed-out QR code that people must scan with their phones to log their visit. Everyone also has a personal health code, which uses test results and location history to assign a color. Green is good. Yellow or red, and you may be sent to quarantine.

What actually determines the color of your code, though, is nebulous.

Vivien Wang, “In China, Living Not “With Covid,” but With “Zero Covid”” at New York Times (October 1, 2022)

Many of these restrictions are an extreme form of Covid Theater, put in place so local officials can signal their loyalty to Xi Jinping and his policies. The measures are described as “overkill” because even one Covid case is enough to get a local official fired:

Mr. Xi has made “zero Covid” a political imperative, linking support for the policy to support for the Communist Party, as he looks to hail China’s success in curbing infections as a sign of the superiority of Beijing’s authoritarian system.

John Liu, “Covid Defies China’s Lockdowns, Creating Chaos Ahead of Top Meeting” at New York Times (October 7, 2022)

The heath apps and Covid measures also give officials a means to contain troublesome people, such as political protestors, by turning their health code app “red” and forcing them to quarantine.

The Chinese people are becoming impatient and angry

Cases started edging up after China’s week-long National Day holiday from October 1 through 7. Several cities have seen Covid flareups due to highly contagious omicron sub-variants, resulting in more lockdowns.

Prior to the National Day holiday, the highest number of cases in China were in Xinjiang, Tibet, Sichuan (especially Chengdu), Guizhou, and Inner Mongolia. Residents in various parts of Xinjiang have not been allowed to leave their homes since mid-August. The lockdowns have led to food deprivation and online vitriol.

Earlier this year, much of Shanghai was locked down for two months, in which people were subjected to food shortages, numerous tests, and separation from their families for quarantine. Now select neighborhoods and areas in Shanghai are locked down in an effort to curb another spate of cases.

Videos online showed people in Yunnan, a popular tourist destination in China — trapped at the airport after the government halted all flights — yelling at armed guards. The New York Times reports that these videos could not be independently verified but reporters have interacted with people on Weibo in Yunnan who are worried about getting basic necessities:

Addison Sun, interviewed by the BBC, is a tour guide in China’s historic city of Xi’an. He said that the strict Covid measures have killed the tourism industry and he has been left unable to work. In a BBC video, he talks about his depression and his eventual motivation to create video tours because of his daughter. The video also interviews Zhang Min, a shop owner of popular handmade purses. She has barely made enough money to pay her bills. Other merchants and restaurant owners have had to close or default on bills.

China’s economy has suffered considerably under the zero-Covid policy, but in many ways, Xi Jinping and CCP authorities are stuck. If they open the country, China’s people do not have immunity, thanks both to the zero-Covid policy and to Chinese-made vaccines that provide inadequate protection against Covid. China has refused mRNA vaccines from the U.S. or Europe. Meanwhile, Moderna refused the CCP’s stipulation that Moderna must hand over the mRNA technology and formulation, due to safety and commercial concerns. Whether the coronavirus was due to a lab leak or some kind of animal-to-human infection, China’s top laboratories have come under intense scrutiny since the SARS-CoV-2 virus was identified in Wuhan.

China’s supremacy marketed as security and stability

Xi will be announcing his third term at the Twentieth National Congress, a meeting that occurs every five years. After Mao Zedong died in 1976, term limits were put in place, restricting the position of General Secretary to two five-year terms, to prevent another personality cult. Since Xi took office in 2012, he has emulated many of Mao’s practices, including centralizing power in himself and the Politburo Standing Committee.

Chun Han Wong reports in the Wall Street Journal that Xi may receive the designation renmin lingxiu or “people’s leader,” similar to Mao’s designation weida lingxiu or “great leader.”

Not only will Xi break precedent by serving a third term as leader, but he will also break precedent by not adhering to informal age limits. Since 2002, there have been informal age limits for politicians, so-called “seven up, eight down.” The phrase means that if a politician is 67 at the beginning of the term he can remain in office, but if he is 68, then he retires. Xi turned 69 last June…

During his time in office, Xi has consolidated power, rid the government of any dissenters, and enacted harsh measures to maintain stability. He has spearheaded China’s use of algorithms and big data to surveil its population. He has reined in the chaotic internet through a pervasive censorship and propaganda department.

The strict measures justified by the Covid-19 pandemic, coupled with the nationalist celebrations from the Beijing Winter Olympics, have served Xi’s and the Communist Party’s overall agenda of restoring China’s place of primacy in the world. By many accounts, he has been successful. However, as with so many in power, his success is being undermined by his own policies, for example his “common prosperity” initiative, shutting down the private sector, and now dynamic zero Covid. Politicians are readily acquiescing to Xi’s policies in hopes of staying in his good graces. Stability and security, it seems, are inextricably tied to pandering to Xi Jinping.

In the end, absurdity and meaninglessness

The word that keeps popping up in people’s reflections on living with zero Covid is “absurdity.” A New York Times article by Zixu Wang outlined China’s “absurd” Covid propaganda campaign, which inspired an artist in Shanghai to create propaganda-sounding gibberish, built from actual slogans processed through an algorithmic randomizer.

Professor Lao Dongyan, who has written on feminism, wrote a reflective social media post on middle age, meaninglessness, and not giving up on fighting for the rule of law, a post that garnered thousands of views before it was removed by censors. She is a law professor at Tsinghua University, living under Big Brother’s boot. I will close with two passages from one of her essays, which is worth reading in its entirety via the translation available on David Cowhig’s blog:

Everything is done in the name of security and social stability. They claim that it is for the good of the people. The sad thing is that both the hospital security guards and the checkpoint personnel are each doing their duty as if they were merely screws, conscientiously carrying out the rules from above, while at the same time turning a blind eye to the suffering of specific individuals — or even themselves causing the suffering of others.

And

In the eyes of such a state apparatus, the abstract idea of the group reigns supreme, while the concrete individual members have no value at all. In fact, the more the people as a group are elevated, the more insignificant they as individual members of the group become. It is absurd that these two ideas can exist in parallel.

The absurdity does not stop there. Internet and data technology, which developed so rapidly in the name of freedom, are becoming new tools of domination. They place increasingly heavy shackles on us as members of society. Technology itself is strongly advocated in the name of benefiting society, but in reality it is often used for surveillance and manipulation, including trickery.

You may also wish to read: 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. Among the troubles caused by China’s COVID response include food shortages, preferential treatment for government officials, and hospitals turning patients away. (Heather Zeiger, January 20, 2022)


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.

China’s Covid Theater: It’s Not Really About the Disease