Lockdown Lunacy Spreads Across China...Again
Are Cities Locking Down Just To Prove Their Loyalty To The CCP?
Just as it was this past spring, China is once again locking down whole cities and populations in pursuit of Xi Jinping's psychotic “Zero COVID” policy.
Since August 20, at least 74 cities with a combined population of 313 million have imposed lockdowns that cover entire cities, districts or multiple neighborhoods, according to CNN's calculations. They include 15 provincial capitals and Tianjin, a provincial-level municipality.
Many of the restrictions are still in place. According to Chinese financial magazine Caixin, 33 cities are currently under partial or full lockdowns. Experts say more cities are likely to be added in the coming weeks.
Ostensibly, the driving rationale for the lockdowns has been a “surge” in new cases. Presumably, the virus is spreading and so are the lockdowns.
However, the case counts overall are already declining, after a minor surge lasting only a few days.
China appears to be responding to a crisis that outwardly has already passed.
It’s All About The Party Congress
China appears to be redoubling its efforts to eradicate COVID-19 via lockdown as a prelude to the Chinese Communist Party’s upcoming 20th Party Congress, scheduled to begin on October 16, at which President Xi Jinping is widely believed to be elected as President for an unprecedented third term.
Many China watchers believe the CCP wants to avoid a major outbreak of COVID in the runup to the party congress, and so are taking a hard line on lockdowns now.
"The Party wants to make sure nothing untoward, such as a major outbreak, could potentially threaten social stability, shadow the leadership transition process -- and not to mention tarnish Xi's personal leadership credibility," said Yanzhong Huang, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Another possible reason local officials are taking a hard line on lockdowns is as a gesture of loyalty to Xi Jinping and the established regime.
For local officials, doubling down on zero-Covid is a way to toe the Party line, demonstrate their loyalty to Xi, and prevent any large-scale outbreak that could jeopardize their career weeks before the Party congress.
"This provides a strong incentive for them to undertake heavy-handed, extreme preemptive measures," Huang said. "In the coming month and a half, we're going to see more cities under lockdown."
Lockdowns and Zero COVID have become less about preserving the public health and more about public officials proving their devotion to the CCP.
Beijing Defends The Policy, The Economy Says Otherwise
Beijing, of course, continues to defend the policy as an example of how China's political structure is superior to Western democracies.
The ruling Communist Party has used the zero-Covid strategy to argue that its political model is superior to Western democracies, and Xi has thrown his weight behind the policy.
Government officials have even gone so far as to claim Zero COVID is a demonstrated success and the best method for dealing with COVID-19.
If China gives up on epidemic prevention and relies entirely on treatment of symptoms, the medical system would run the risk of being overwhelmed, said Ma Xiaowei, director of the National Health Commission (NHC).
"The dynamic zero-COVID policy has proven to be the most effective strategy after rounds of hard battles with highly contagious variants," said Ma, adding that China's approach to epidemic containment is not based on a single specific measure, but relies on science-based decision-making and highly efficient coordination.
The Chinese economy, however, is rather less sanguine about the lockdowns.
China's stock markets are continuing to decline on the year.
Caixin's August Manufacturing PMI slipped into contraction territory, further demonstrating the damage Zero COVID is doing to the Chinese economy.
Meanwhile, consumer activities such as tourism and retail shopping are greatly disrupted by the lockdowns, and that’s hitting Chinese businesses straight in the wallet.
Demand in Shanghai for everything from dining out to movies and tourism are still far below pre-lockdown levels, while some indicators show the city is taking longer to recover than Hong Kong and Singapore where rules have been eased. Retail sales in the city dropped 4.3% in June from a year earlier and rose a meager 0.3% in July, following an average 35% slump in the preceding three months starting March, when the outbreak began.
All told, the areas in China currently in lockdown normally account for 35% of Chinese GDP, which activity is now being disrupted and even shut off by the Zero COVID policy.
Have The Chinese People Had Enough Of Zero COVID?
As was the case with the Shanghai lockdown fiasco, there are signs of discontent spreading among the residents of locked down cities, who are obviously not happy about the situation.
The protracted and often unpredictable measures have angered many ordinary people. Some complain that the repeated lockdowns have affected their livelihood while others express worries over elderly parents being unable to go out without having been tested.
“People might starve to death before they are infected!”, one social media user exclaimed. Another user compared the draconian measures to “a war without gunpowder that no one can evade”.
In Chengdu, the fears of being left without adequate food during the lockdown, as happened in Shanghai, are quite evident, and are amplifying the outcry over government mis-steps in managing the lockdown.
To many, the panic buying in Chengdu underscored how deeply previous lockdowns — especially the grueling two-month shutdown of Shanghai earlier this year — had shaken people. Though Chengdu officials have tried to reassure residents that food supplies are ample, Shanghai had offered similar assurances, only to see widespread reported shortages of food and medicine.
Chengdu officials themselves have already tested residents’ trust, after the authorities last week ordered a man detained for 15 days, accusing him of spreading false rumors on social media about a looming lockdown. Two days later, when the city did actually lock down, social media erupted with support for the man and anger at the government.
The mass testing regimes which accompany the lockdowns only serve to exacerbate the tense situation.
Problems have already appeared. Some residents have complained on social media of long delays in food deliveries. Over the weekend, Chengdu’s Covid testing system — which has been tasked with swabbing all of the city’s 21 million residents every day — collapsed, leaving residents waiting in line for hours.
As was the case during the Shanghai lockdown, the Chinese people are taking to social media to vent their anger over the lockdowns, and the ability of some—such as the testing companies administering the mass COVID tests—to even profit by the government-inflicted misery.
As the restrictions have spread across the country, so has public discontent. In Chengdu, the testing failures prompted a flurry of outrage at the company responsible, with online commenters noting that certain sectors focused on Covid control were profiting while regular people were suffering economically. Testing companies have reported soaring revenue in public filings.
Even in China authoritarian government can only push people so far, and Zero COVID is once again testing those limits for the CCP.
No Civil War…Yet
At this juncture, the discontent over lockdown has not yet metastasized into a broader resistance to CCP diktats and open opposition to continued CCP rule.
However, the demonstrated inability of the lockdowns to eradicate SARS-CoV-2 within China once again leaves the Chinese people in the position of supporting a policy which is hostile to their own well being and economic interests while also not achieving the goals which Beijing has set for it. While the CCP continues to monitor and censor Chinese social media, zero tolerance for expressions of discontent over lockdown is having as much success as Zero COVID is: zero.
For now, protests on social media are the extent of people’s opposition to Zero COVID lockdowns. Yet one has to wonder how long the CCP can get lucky in that regard. People are not happy with China’s “new normal” of endless lockdown, they are fearful of what lockdowns will bring in terms of hunger and human suffering, and they are angry.
An angry, restive population is always the greatest threat an authoritarian regime can face. Angry, restive populations can become rebellious populations. Anger and public discontent are in every culture necessary (albeit insufficient) predicates for civil unrest and even civil war.
Even after these latest lockdowns, China is not yet at the brink of widespread civil unrest and uprising, and certainly is not close to actual civil war. It is by no means certain the Chinese people will rebel against the Zero COVID mandates.
However, with expressions of discontent flourishing despite Beijing’s censorship efforts, it is equally uncertain the Chinese people will not eventually reach that tipping point where social media protest becomes public protest, where expressions of discontent become displays of anger, and where discontent over Zero COVID becomes resistance to continued CCP rule.
In the long run, Zero COVID may be not just antithetical to the well being of the Chinese people, but to the political well being of the CCP itself. How Xi Jinping and the CCP will escape the corner into which they have painted themselves remains to be seen.