Hong Kong: The other shoe has dropped for China as it battles COVID-19 outbreaks in various locations, including Shanghai. In the past, Chinese netizens spent considerable energy mocking foreign countries as the pandemic swept unchecked, but now China’s government is struggling to contain its own outbreaks.
Indeed, China’s propaganda machine has made hay denigrating other countries for how they handled or failed to handle COVID-19. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has found plentiful ammunition to highlight the benefits of its authoritarian style of governance in containing the outbreak but simultaneously demonstrated minimal sensitivity to the plight of others.
In fact, China is guilty of often using the plight of others to merely advertise its own largesse in terms of supplying vaccinations and supplies to others.
As an example, one infamous Chinese social media post from last year showed two side-by-side photos: one of the mass cremations in India and the other of a Chinese rocket launch. The proud comment was, “Lighting a fire in China vs lighting a fire in India.” This kind of hubris and cold-heartedness has been rife on China’s internet.
However, China now has at least 23 cities on full or partial lockdown, encompassing more than 193 million people. Shanghai is one such location, and it is struggling to cope with a COVID outbreak. Suddenly, the Chinese government finds it “unethical” that others should be drawing attention to this difficult situation.
Hu Xijin, ex-editor-in-chief of the Global Times, for example, tweeted, “Shanghai is at the peak of the epidemic. It’s one thing for the US to withdraw its diplomatic personnel, but it’s another to make a rude accusation of China’s epidemic control measures. It’s undiplomatic & unethical. No wonder some Chinese netizens asked them to ‘go back to the US’!” Furthermore, China’s Foreign Ministry issued a statement expressing “strong dissatisfaction and firm opposition to the US side’s groundless accusations about China’s epidemic control policy.”
Like elsewhere in the world, rumours abound during lockdowns. One rumour circulating in Shanghai was that the city would see management by the People’s Liberation Army, with soldiers dispatched to guard every residential compound and prevent people from leaving. The CCP issued a denial: “The armed forces will not take over Shanghai communities. The soldiers currently assisting with the city’s anti-pandemic efforts are military medics involved in the mass testing of the population and treatment of COVID-19 patients.”
Nonetheless, the veracity of information released by the government is questionable at best, deliberately false at worst. According to the authorities, Shanghai has had more than 130,000 COVID cases since 1 March, yet nobody has died, and there is only one seriously ill person. Such statistics fly in the face of the rest of the world’s experience with COVID.
Wu Zunyou of China’s Center for Disease Control said death rates were minimal because of efforts to curb outbreaks early and China’s high vaccination rate. “Compared with overseas, our country’s COVID-19 death rate is low because of the various measures to prevent or reduce deaths.” This is exactly the same Wu who infamously said just over two years ago, “For now, it seems there is no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission. This shows that the threat level from this virus is limited.”
When reporting deaths, there are strong incentives in China not to attribute them directly to COVID if alternative underlying conditions are available. Because of official obfuscation, it is simply impossible to know how many have died from COVID there. China also spends lots of time blaming imported frozen food and mail for spreading COVID.
Beijing claims a Zero-COVID policy must be followed because “Omicron can generate a higher mortality rate than Delta during the epidemic”. This assertion is verifiably false. Perhaps other reasons are more pertinent to the CCP’s choice of a Zero-COVID policy. For example, just 51% of those over 80 years older are vaccinated. There are questions about the efficacy of Chinese vaccines too. Once loose in the community, the virus would likely decimate older segments of the population, especially since the World Health Organization says the Sinovac vaccine is only about 50% effective, while Sinopharm’s is 78% effective. Despite the chaos in Shanghai and looming lockdowns in places like Guangzhou, the top headline in Chinese state media on the morning of 11 April was “Xi Jinping’s infinite love for the people” and “determination to benefit the people”.
This diversion of focus came as social media such as Weibo showed Shanghai residents in apartment blocks standing on their balconies to sing and protest the lack of supplies, and even desperate looting occurred. The authorities respond with airborne drones that announce through loudspeakers, “Please comply with COVID restrictions. Control your soul’s desire for freedom. Do not open the window or sing.”
The Chinese government’s brutal and inflexible approach is evident. One video clip showed an ambulance, after being forced to wait for a long time, unloading an ill stretcher-bound woman at a hospital gate. Guards refused to admit her, leaving relatives crying in despair at the entrance.
Students, reportedly at Nanjing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics, hung banners and begged for freedom. “We want deliveries, we want to go off-campus, we want freedom!” Elsewhere, in Jilin, one WeChat message claimed a person ate their dog because of hunger. Thousands of beds have been readied in more than 100 makeshift hospitals in Shanghai. Yet conditions in COVID quarantine sites are primitive, with no showers, only portable toilets, no hot water and absolutely no privacy. No home quarantine is allowed. The policy of separating infected children from their virus-free parents has been relaxed after public anger.
Dr Euan Graham, a senior fellow supporting the International Institute of Strategic Studies Shangri-La Dialogue, commented: “Because COVID-zero has become an end in itself for the party, the people, even in China’s second city, must suffer. Governance reduced to better to go hungry than fall sick.”
Chinese is wary of complaints spreading online. For example, public digital signboards in Beijing read, “Do not post pandemic-related messages online” and “The internet is full of perils. Exercise caution on the internet”. In Jilin, police criticized a resident through a megaphone to “fix” their “inappropriate” remarks in a chat group since the comments amounted to a crime. The person responsible had their name and house number announced for all to hear.
Despite the efforts of censors, some Chinese netizens are blaming the passivity of Shanghai’s leadership early on. One complaint attracted 60,000 likes: “Now the Shanghai government is targeting Zero-COVID. It is the opposite attitude to March.” Another pointed out, “Didn’t you [the Shanghai government] say Shanghai cannot lockdown as it will cause huge damage to the globe?” Others were calling for a member of the Shanghai Epidemic Prevention and Control Leading group to step down because of mishandling.
Online in China, there is a mix of attitudes regarding the pros and cons of China’s Zero-COVID policy. One loyal citizen said, “Trust the dynamic Zero-COVID policy. It is the best option for Shanghai. Fight on!”
Another post, which attracted 174,000 likes, said: “Shanghai failed to control the outbreak. The government acted with hesitation, uncertainty and delays during the lockdown. Turns out Shanghai’s action to tackle COVID became a joke in China. From the outbreak in Hong Kong and Shanghai, we can now prove the ‘dynamic Zero-COVID”‘ policy is the only correct way to tackle the pandemic. The claim is also supported by cases of COVID around the world. Still, some bring out so-called ‘evidence’, trying to guide China into a dead-end called ‘living with COVID’.”
As for those against the harsh policy, one complained: “Shanghai is being criticized for this outbreak. The majority of the population agrees with the Zero-COVID policy, but it doesn’t mean the policy itself is correct. Is the city able to handle the challenges and damage of a lockdown? If not, we need a self-review. Is it our fault or the rest of the world is wrong?” One Shanghai resident bemoaned, to popular acclaim: “Those people who do not live in Shanghai keep requesting a straight lockdown. We lost our income, huge damage to Shanghai’s economy. We can only ask neighbours for help with food, struggling to secure enough food for my kids. They are requesting a Shanghai lockdown to avoid the same situation applying to themselves. Their action is selfish and ignores the difficult situation in Shanghai!”
Others agree with the CCP’s policy but ask for more flexibility. “Shanghai failed to control the outbreak at the beginning, so we have to consider how to tackle COVID. Different variants fit specific tactics, and China should have ways to choose the correct method … For the Omicron variant, especially the BA2 variant, a lockdown is suitable due to its properties of high transmissibility. It is expected we’ll have more COVID variants in the future. We have to consider carefully and make a decision on lockdown or not.”
Giving some insight into Shanghai’s plight, Naomi Wu, who describes herself as China’s #1 tech & DIY YouTuber, noted: “Things are quite bad in Shanghai. China has a long and ugly history of famine, displacement and civil unrest. The social contract we have is basically; no more of that and a steady improvement in quality of life, and we won’t quibble too much about the path that takes us there.”
She highlighted this Chinese worldview that the people remain compliant as long as things are improving incrementally, generation by generation. If the CCP keeps delivering improvements, then the populace will not step out of line. Wu elaborated: “Some countries were founded in a fight against fascism, freedom from colonial powers – every nationality has its buttons you do not push if you don’t want people in the street. In China, our fight was against the humiliation of colonialism, but also of the humiliation of poverty.” Memories of ration cards and mass starvation are still in living memory.
Wu continued: “We absolutely cannot abide any hunger. You can do a lot to Chinese -you’ve seen us put up with a lot, but hunger we will not. Whether it’s an epigenetic legacy I can’t say, but the memory of famine is firmly burned into the Chinese collective consciousness.”
This primal fear of starvation is one reason why Wu thinks the authorities will ensure people do not starve. “Shanghaiese will not starve in their homes – the powers that be are well aware of it. The only reason they have not taken to the streets in greater numbers is the population is highly educated, well invested in the current system, and aware that doing so will make things worse.”
The food situation is exacerbated by the fact that the Chinese prefer “fresh” rather than frozen food. This led to vast amounts of food being lost as it spoiled due to trucks being unable to deliver goods on time. As well as frozen food, the Chinese are not keen on canned food either, plus they rely heavily on takeout food. Perhaps 80% of the average person’s daily calorie intake – with the exception of rice – comes from perishable goods, so any disruption to the time-sensitive food supply chain can snowball. Wu concluded, “I genuinely hope that ample supply trucks will get through, healthcare shortages eased, and people [are] patient. Civil unrest is called for in some cases, but here it would only make things vastly worse, very, very quickly. But you should understand why this is such a delicate time.”
If COVID does escape localized lockdowns, the death toll could spike, she warned. “So in the next few weeks, if there is no major progress, we are faced with the possibility of civil unrest caused by scarcity – either from lockdowns or by a shortage of workers able to deliver supplies due to illness.” (ANI)