Zero-Covid Reality in China in Oct 2022
Not all is doom and gloom but people are fed up. Something has to give.
View from China with an Austrian School of Economics Perspective
For those without special permits, access to the entire province of Xinjiang was blocked several weeks ago. Visitors from outside the province cannot return home, including large numbers of temporary workers who had come to help with the cotton harvest. They are now stuck there without work. This week Ürümqi City is locked down, as is Zhengzhou. Again. Cities all across China, including Beijing and Shanghai, continue to be plagued by sporadic lockdowns in this or that housing complex. Taxi drivers sleep in their cars parked outside their housing complex when they hear rumors of an impending lockdown, for fear that they will once again be prevented from working.
Shanghai is running about 50 official new cases per day, Beijing a bit less, though if anecdotal evidence is to be believed, quite a bit of fudging is going on, since the official numbers often only reflect ‘社会面’ cases, i.e. new cases cropping up in areas which are thus far NOT YET locked down. ‘社会面’ (shèhuìmiàn) is another one of those newfangled words made up by the bureaucracy whose meaning almost no-one could have guessed a year ago.
There is hardly a province in China without cases. In other words, 2 1/2 years after its inception, the zero-Covid policy is an utter failure.
What has improved
Nonetheless, before we talk about how bad things are, it’s worth noting that some things have improved.
Lockdowns for people in housing complexes with cases or close contacts tend to be shorter than before (often only 2 or 3 days). Policies vary however and more than anything uncertainty prevails. Deportations to isolation camps for close contacts seem to be rarer. Hospital emergency rooms no longer reject people due to a lack of up to date test results. Instead, they do a quick test at the entrance. And at least in Shanghai, enforcement of the QR ‘health’ code regime is often lackadaisical. In theory, most establishments are supposed to demand visitors scan their site code and prove they either have a PCR result issued within the past 72 hours, OR have a test result pending. In reality, most restaurants have stopped enforcing this, as well as many supermarkets. Mask wearing is also definitely down. Thankfully, Chinese tolerance for senseless regulations seems to have an expiration date.
And besides, beautiful fall weather is here again, the skies are blue, a little breeze is blowing and the birds are chirping. People, including government officials, have better things to do in life besides thinking about QR codes and imaginary pandemics. Politics do not traditionally play much of a role in people’s lives, and there is a strong preference to return to that status quo.
Moreover, since the official regimen often seems logic-free, it is hard to take it seriously. For example, while someone needing to go on the drip in a hospital must have done a PCR test within 24 hours (with or without a result), nothing is required of family members accompanying the patient. If the hospital were truly afraid of the virus, that would make no sense at all. Yet at petrol stations located OUTSIDE, someone in the car needs to pass the 72-hour QR test to fill the tank up.
And no, failing to have an up-to-date PCR test result does not automatically turn your QR code red, as some of the Twitterati claim. Or get you whisked away to the camps. It’s just potentially inconvenient. Yes, unsurprisingly there have been cases where the QR ‘health’ codes were abused for political purposes. For example, back in June the health codes of some disgruntled bank depositors traveling in to Zhengzhou from out of province were turned red in an attempt to dissuade them from demonstrating. They had come to demand that the state deposit insurance fund bailout three small local banks who had been declared bankrupt. Some members of a WeChat group of disgruntled depositors who foolishly scanned the QR code when exiting the train station in Zhengzhou were the ones this happened to. This abuse was however widely denounced all across social media in China, to the point where official state media (第一财经) also commented and condemned it.
[For those who want to know how that ended: The depositors did end up getting compensated up to 250,000 per account.]
On a side note, apparently off and on in some cities and provinces the QR code system still doesn’t work for foreigners. Standard government incompetence. People expected to implement these systems on the ground adjust their expectations accordingly.
And no, China still has no vaccine passports and no vaccine mandate. Though coercion certainly does happen, it remains illegal to coerce anyone into vaccination against their will. In early July, yet another attempt to impose a vaccine mandate was launched in Beijing, where authorities announced they were planning to require proof of vaccination to enter certain buildings. The policy was however never implemented; after a torrent of complaints to the government’s 12345 hotline, it was withdrawn within approximately 48 hours.
These days the government seems to have lost all interest in the vaccines, with them hardly being mentioned any more.
Tyrannical Hong Kong, which is not subject to mainland Chinese law, by contrast DOES have a vaccine mandate, with proof of Covid vaccination required to visit many public areas. Until recently visitors from mainland China were exempted from this, but that exemption was recently reversed.
Finally, thanks to the ultimate price paid by 27 uninfected residents from Guiyang, Guizhou province, enthusiasm within government circles for Soviet-style deportations in middle of the night seems to be distinctly on the wane. They were killed in an accident on the way to a far-away isolation camp at 2:40am in the morning after being forcibly deported from their homes. RIP.
Though not all is gloom and doom, to say that the situation is not good would be a huge understatement. The situation is very bad. People can endure all sorts of deprivation for short periods, but this has been going on for two years now.
With constant uncertainty, business planning is very difficult. Long distance travel remains theoretically possible for most, but is fraught with risk. It’s safest just to stay home. International travel remains all but impossible. All in all, deadly for the economy. And yet, the government claims China will register a 3% growth rate in GDP this year.
This is not even remotely believable, though no doubt they are counting the whole pandemic industry (PCR tests, service staff, masks etc.) as production.
In December 2019, the Chinese national government still had approval ratings over 80%. No more.
The government has lost all credibility. The longer this goes on, the less fear there is of this killer virus which kills almost no-one. During the severe 2-month Shanghai lockdown in April-May, the final conclusion was that ZERO people died of Covid-19. All deaths among the infected were deemed to have had other causes. There were however plenty of deaths caused by despair and a lack of access to medical care. Among the people, the fear is of the government and its enforcers. Within local governments, the fear is of a crackdown from enforcers from Beijing.
There are revolts. Like taxi drivers, day laborers for example cannot afford to just stay at home for a month without getting paid, even if some food is supplied by the local government for free. The government whose slogan is ‘common prosperity’ doesn’t pay compensation to anyone and doesn’t seem to care if people are unable to pay their bills. Yet if enough people put their foot down, there is not much the government can do, especially in light of the fact that everyone knows these grievances are legitimate. This is what happened in Ürümqi’s Wanjialiang area on September 25th. The local government relented after one day, not only ending their local lockdown but agreeing to help the temporary laborers stuck in Xinjiang to find local work. This is far from the only such case.
Of course, the revolts are not only among the people. This week, the long delayed 20th Party Congress is taking place in Beijing. The long delay in setting a concrete date is a strong hint that the Party is divided. Moreover, in an unprecedented éclat, the ex-president Hu Jintao seems to have been forcibly ejected from the closing session, in what can only be interpreted as a sign of serious strife within the party.
The current top dog, Mr. Zero-Covid personified, has emerged from his basement to stand for re-election to a third 5-year term. Will he get a mandate to continue down his path to nowhere? Or will he be ousted at the last minute?
Just prior to the opening of the 20th Party Congress there was a public denunciation of the government’s failure to correct its zero-Covid policies. On October 13th two banners were unfurled at Beijing’s Sitong Overpass and a smoking fire was set to attract attention. The banners were accompanied by a loudspeaker demanding a change of government. The description of the current officeholder as a 国贼 (guózéi, meaning country + thief) was not very flattering.
The first banner read:
We want food, not PCR tests
Freedom, not lockdowns
Dignity, not lies
Reform, not cultural revolution
Elections, not rulers
To be a citizen is to cease being a slave
The second banner called for strikes to bring down the government.
The banners did not last long but pictures and videos of them flooded the net. The government’s censorship machine swung into action, but as usual without much effect. The messages were widely distributed, so much so they are apparently now being copied to the walls of public toilets in Beijing. Thus far it seems these remain video camera-free.
Beijing now has a new profession: bridge watcher (看桥员) – salary 320 yuan (~US$45) per day.
Today the 205 new and 171 alternate Central Committee members were announced. Tomorrow Sunday October 23rd is the big election where these will then elect the new 7-member Politburo Standing Committee. Drum roll.
Very interesting overview, thanks!
On the taking people to isolation camps. Did the authorities really kill 27 citizens on the way there? What was the justification? Was this confirmed by Chinese sources?
It would be also interesting to read your assessment of the results of the XX Congress of the CCP. Looks like chairman Xi and the forces behind him were the overall winners, especially in light of how elderly Hu Jintao was removed from the podium at the closing of congress, and the fact that liberal Li Keqiang will no longer be a member of politburo. I remember the celebration by the liberal Canada when Hu Jintao came to power in 2002. The main liberal rupor, The Globe & Mail (equivalent of the New York Times in US) came up with the weekend edition dedicated entirely to China and personally to Hu Jintao. I'm not kidding - the entire newspaper edition was convincing Canadians that China was great, but under Hu Jintao it is going to be the greatest. I couldn't believe my eyes back then. Where was I in Toronto or in Beijing?
Would you like to elaborate on who you are and where (if at all) you are located in China?