The Chinese government has chosen to enforce its ‘Zero Covid’ policy with a degree of cruelty and zealousness the Chinese people haven’t experienced since the Cultural Revolution.
Reportedly responding to more infectious Covid-19 variants, the Chinese government has recently put 46 cities and 343 million residents under strict lockdowns. The ruthlessly enforced lockdown policies, empty shelves in grocery stores, and widespread food shortages have become a wake-up call for many.
After the Chinese Communist Party brutally cracked down on the pro-democracy movement in Tiananmen Square in 1989, it offered the Chinese people an unwritten grand bargain: exchanging their political freedom for economic growth. The last four decades of economic reforms have lifted China’s living standards.
“Many Chinese believe that the country’s recent economic achievements—large-scale poverty reduction, huge infrastructure investment, and development as a world-class tech innovator—have come about because of, not despite, China’s authoritarian form of government,” observe Rana Mitter and Elsbeth Johnson in Harvard Business Review. The party’s censorship, tight control of all aspects of Chinese society, and the rising nationalist movement have left little room for dissenting from this view.
The CCP’s genocide in Xinjiang against the Uyghur Muslims and other minorities and the party’s crackdown on Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement were stories that either received no coverage or distorted coverage in mainland China. Many mainlanders chose to believe the Chinese government’s rhetoric that these stories were manufactured by hostile Western forces who sought to destabilize China and stop the nation’s inevitable return to its rightful place as a dominant power in the world.
The majority of Chinese supported Beijing’s “Zero Covid” policy between 2020 and 2021, which relied on mandatory vaccination, testing, quarantines, and border control to isolate the entire nation from the rest of the world for more than two years. They point to China’s low Covid case numbers and deaths (many outside of China found those numbers highly questionable), in contrast to high case numbers and fatalities in the West, as evidence that China’s political system is superior to Western democracy.
Some in the West agreed. Early last year, New York Times China correspondent Li Yuan gleefully tweeted her piece, “In a Topsy-Turvy Pandemic World, China Offers Its Version of Freedom.” She claimed that “the pandemic has upended many perceptions, including ideas about freedom. Chinese don’t have freedom of speech, freedom of worship, or freedom from fear, but they have the freedom to move around and lead a normal day-to-day life,” thanks to the Chinese government’s aggressive response to the pandemic.
But the Chinese people and overseas cheerleaders of the CCP regime had a rude awakening this year thanks to the lockdown in Shanghai, a city of 26 million people known for their wealth and sophistication. The Chinese government has chosen to enforce its “Zero Covid” policy with a degree of cruelty and zealousness the Chinese people haven’t experienced since the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976).
For example, residents have been locked inside their apartments like animals, and some even have metal barriers and fences outside their homes. One foreigner in Shanghai told the BBC, “No one can get out, and I feel helpless.”
There’s widespread hunger because people are not allowed to go grocery shopping and the government-run food delivery has been meager. Guards in white protective gear beat residents who attempted to sneak out to buy some food or even tried to dig up herbs in the yard.
People with chronic illnesses or medical emergencies couldn’t get timely treatment. After a video showing a community worker in a white hazmat suit beating a corgi to death, pet owners have additional concerns.
Chinese social media is full of posts of desperate Shanghai residents pleading for food, medical help, or someone to take care of their pets. Adults have been taken from their homes and forced to spend weeks in poorly run mass quarantine camps, and young children have been cruelly separated from their parents.
Some of the Communist regime’s overseas cheerleaders have changed their minds following the brutal Shanghai lockdowns. Yuan of The New York Times, who lectured Americans that the Chinese version of freedom is more preferable than the freedom in the United States, recently wrote, “China’s ‘Zero Covid’ Mess Proves Autocracy Hurts Everyone.”
More importantly, what happened in Shanghai has evoked the older generation’s memories of the horrors of the Cultural Revolution, and shattered younger generations’ confidence in the government. More and more Chinese people have shown they’re losing faith in the Chinese government’s policies and narratives.
Some chose to speak out. Zhong Hongjun, a professor at the Shanghai University of Finance and Economics, said the government’s actions are so “inhumane” that he regretted supporting the “Zero Covid” policy.
Some chose to protest. In one residential compound, residents clashed with health authorities and police in a desperate attempt to block the government from turning their housing complex into quarantine camps for Covid patients. Police arrested several protesters.
Since speaking out and protesting in broad daylight are dangerous in an authoritarian regime, others chose more discrete ways to express their anger and frustration. A six-minute video titled “The Voice of April” went viral in China on April 22. It included voices of Shanghai residents complaining about food shortages and lacking medical care and revealing the human toll of the government’s Covid policies.
The video had millions of views, and Chinese netizens tried many creative ways to preserve and share it before the censors took it down, including saving copies on blockchains. Zeyi Yang, a writer for Technology Reviews, calls the Chinese netizens’ actions an example of “digital protesting.”
There are other signs that more Chinese people are losing faith in the Chinese government after witnessing what has happened in Shanghai. China’s capital city Beijing is facing a Covid-19 outbreak. Worrying that Beijing would undergo a Shanghai-style lockdown, Beijing residents stocked up on food and wiped grocery stores clean, despite government officials’ repeated announcements of no food shortages.
There are indications the lockdowns will result in an exodus of people and capital. An online survey revealed that about 85 percent of Shanghai’s expat residents were considering leaving China due to its lockdown policies. Shanghai-based immigration consultants reported that immigration inquiries from wealthy Shanghai residents have skyrocketed.
One consultant received more than 200 immigration inquiries in one day. He explained that “The authorities are making people sacrifice their basic needs to fight a disease that’s a bit more severe than seasonal flu. Our clients chose to vote with their feet.”
Since the Chinese government has put hundreds of millions of residents under lockdown, Shanghai residents’ torment has been repeated in many other parts of China, so many share Shanghai residents’ anger and frustration. Not surprisingly, more Chinese people have woken up from the government’s lies and cruelty. Beijing’s insistence on harsh “zero Covid” measures may become the regime’s undoing, as more and more Chinese have finally learned that their health, safety, and prosperity are not secure without political freedom.