The Chinese Community Party’s leader Xi Jinping declared China’s victory over Covid-19 in March 2020. Yet, more than two years later, the Chinese government is still trying to contain another Covid outbreak in many parts of the nation. Its struggle exposes the fundamental flaws of China’s political system.
Back in March 2020, when Xi took his victory lap in Wuhan, the epicenter of the novel coronavirus outbreak, the CCP propaganda machine portrayed it as indisputable evidence of the superiority of China’s political system and Xi’s leadership. Even some in the west parroted Beijing’s talking points, claiming the Covid response “has fully demonstrated the superiority of Chinese governance.”
To maintain China’s image of success, the Chinese government has insisted on a “Zero Covid” policy, relying on mandatory vaccination, testing, quarantines, and border control to isolate the entire nation from the rest of the world for more than two years. The long isolation has led to low herd immunity in China.
The Chinese government also insisted on using Chinese-made vaccines, even though these vaccines had gone through limited clinical trials and had reported low efficacy rates. The combined effect of low herd immunity and Chinese vaccines’ low efficacy is that the Chinese population has become especially vulnerable to more infectious Covid variants such as Delta and Omicron.
More Lockdowns in China
Since last fall, China has experienced another Covid outbreak in many parts of the country and responded by putting multiple cities and regions under lockdowns, even though plenty of evidence, including a Johns Hopkins University study, has shown that lockdowns are “not an effective way of reducing mortality rates during a pandemic.”
On March 26, the government of Shanghai (China’s largest city, with 25 million people) announced it would impose a lockdown in two phases over the next week and a half. Before this announcement, some sectors in Shanghai were already under lockdown for weeks. The images and news of the Chinese government’s cruel way of enforcing some of the most nonsensical policies have shocked the world.
Kids Quarantined without Parents
The policy that caused most condemnation is that children who are seven or younger and tested positive for Covid must be quarantined at public health centers separated from their parents. When government workers forcefully took a kid away from home, they always promised the parents that they would take good care of the child and send the parents updates. In reality, parents said they often didn’t know their kids’ whereabouts and hadn’t seen their faces or heard their voices for weeks.
Each nurse is reportedly assigned to look after up to 20 babies and toddlers at those quarantine centers. Nurses have been so overwhelmed that they neglect to look after many children’s needs. One mom said her three-year-old son was left alone to manage everything from eating to going to the bathroom all by himself during his 16-day quarantine at one of those centers. An unverified video of neglected children crying and screaming at one of those quarantine centers went viral in China recently and resulted in widespread public outrage.
When the government finally released some of the children back home, these kids have exhibited Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder symptoms (PTSD). One mom shared online that after her 17-month-old daughter returned, the toddler treated mommy as a stranger and screamed whenever the mother tried to bathe her. Many anxious parents are now concerned about the mental health of their young children and their physical well-being.
Horrified by how inhuman the policy was, the French consulate in Shanghai, on behalf of several European nations, urged the Shanghai government not to separate children from their parents in the name of quarantine. Yet a Shanghai health official defended this policy as a critical step to virus “prevention and control work.”
Besides being separated from their young children, Shanghai residents have many other complaints. First, many households are experiencing starvation because government workers blockade apartment buildings and wouldn’t let residents go out to buy groceries. Authorities’ promise of delivering food and necessities to each household has often failed to come through.
Alice Su, a senior correspondent for The Economist, tweeted that “Shanghai residents go to their balconies to sing & protest lack of supplies. A drone appears: ‘Please comply w covid restrictions. Control your soul’s desire for freedom. Do not open the window or sing.'”
Second, people who experienced medical emergencies or have chronic diseases such as asthma couldn’t receive timely medical care, and some reportedly ended up losing their lives. Third, police and government health workers abuse their power, with reports of them illegally entering and searching people’s homes and beating or shaming non-compliant residents.
Fourth, there’s a growing mental health crisis in the city. Some residents took their own lives after being locked up in their apartment buildings for weeks. For the older generation, the brutal and inhuman way that Chinese authorities enforce absurd Covid restrictions reminds them of the abuses from the Red Guards they endured during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976).
Lockdowns Aren’t Working
Shanghai’s harshly enforced Covid restrictions have failed to stop the virus’s spread. As of April 5, the city reported more than 13,000 new Covid cases, double the number before the city’s lockdown. The Shanghai government decided to extend lockdowns indefinitely, which means the misery and suffering Shanghai residents have endured for the last two weeks will continue.
Besides human suffering, there are economic concerns. Shanghai is the most influential finance and international trade center globally, accounting for about 4 percent of China’s GDP. Throughout China, regions experiencing Shanghai-style lockdowns represent about one-third of China’s GDP. These lockdowns are estimated to cost the Chinese economy $46 billion per month in economic output.
China’s struggle to contain the Covid outbreak 2.0 exposes the fundamental flaw of its political system. The country is an authoritarian regime run by one party and its dictator Xi Jinping. By declaring an early victory over Covid more than two years ago, Xi had tied the victory over Covid to the credibility of his leadership.
Xi is set to begin his third term later this year after eliminating the two-term limit of his position, and he desperately needs to demonstrate his “Zero Covid” policy a success. Therefore, he sees the current Covid outbreak as an embarrassment that needs to be eliminated at all costs.
He also faces little consequence for his actions, no matter how ridiculous or how much harm they cause. There is no election to hold him accountable, no independent media to challenge his policies, and anyone who seeks to speak truth to power has already been suppressed. The Chinese government will continue to brutally enforce its ineffective Covid restrictions as long as Xi deems necessary.
Economists are concerned that China’s continuing “Zero Covid” approach will slow China’s economic growth this year and will hurt the global economic recovery, worsen the supply chain issues, and increase the risk of a worldwide recession. As we all learned from Covid, the rest of the world is never immune from bad things that happen in China.