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"I already realized that the virus won't kill us. But starvation can!". The “zero-tolerance” policy in Shanghai


The coronavirus outbreak that began in Shanghai in March 2022 was the largest since the virus broke out in Wuhan in December 2019. While all previous outbreaks were quickly and painlessly contained by the authorities, this time a massive lockdown had to be declared in the main economic center of the Middle Kingdom.

The government's desire to defeat the virus at, pretty much, any cost caused a powerful wave of protest in social networks. Entire neighborhoods in Shanghai were left without food, people could not leave their homes or arrange for delivery. At the same time, the questions posed by both the Internet users, and the analysts, relate not only to the current situation, but also to the "zero tolerance" approach that the government has been pursuing for more than two years.

The Chinese method of combating COVID-19 involves drastic and harsh measures: when sporadic cases of the disease are registered, local authorities test the population of multi-million cities as quickly as possible, and entire counties are put under lockdown.

This is how outbreaks were contained in major cities such as Xi'an and Tianjin last winter.

Besides, the Chinese approach also implies almost complete isolation from the outside world. It is impossible to enter the country not only for tourists, but also for those who would like to stay in China on a study or work visa.

At the same time, many of the foreigners who were already in the country at the beginning of the pandemic, decided to leave the country, disagreeing with the strict and sometimes cruel measures taken by the government.

Photo: Qilai Shen/Bloomberg

So what is the reason for this harsh policy and why is China sticking to its original strategy instead of learning to get along with the virus and going through several coronavirus waves, as most countries have done?

In Chinese, the word "crisis" 危机 consists of two characters. One stands for "danger" 危 and the other for "opportunity" 机.

The coronavirus epidemic is a clear example of how the Chinese government has chosen to use the unprecedented health crisis not only to demonstrate its medical and administrative capacity to overcome it, but also to enhance its diplomatic influence and improve its international image.

While Western countries' health systems were unable to cope with the influx of sick people, the PRC's "zero tolerance" policy allowed it to contain the spread of the disease in the hotspots for two years and to avoid many deaths. On top of that, China managed to maintain a successful economic performance and even to safely host the Olympic Games in February 2022.

All this was an important political victory for the ruling Communist Party and its General Secretary Xi Jinping. Meanwhile, China's president has repeatedly mentioned the superiority of China's approach and the country's stunning success in fighting the virus.

Photo: Reuters

For example, at the ceremony honoring athletes in Beijing, Xi Jinping declared:

“The Olympics have once again demonstrated the validity of our approach. Some foreign athletes said that if there was a gold medal for fighting the pandemic, China would definitely win it.”

However, in previous covid outbreaks, daily population testing, travel restrictions, and strict lockdowns have outpaced the spread of the virus. Meanwhile, the Omicron variant that penetrated the country does not play by China's usual rules.

The strain's high contagiousness, along with a shortened incubation period, has left a city of 25 million people virtually paralyzed since late March.

People have faced food and medicine shortages. Unable to buy their own supplies, they must wait for centralized deliveries, which work intermittently.

Those who have been diagnosed with the virus must go to special facilities that do not meet the proper standards, even if they have little or no symptoms. Meanwhile, patients with any other complaints, cannot get to a doctor.

As a result, instead of widespread approval of government actions and praise for the country's successes shortly before the next Communist Party Congress, where Xi Jinping is expected to announce his third term in office, Chinese authorities have received a wave of condemnation on social networks such as Weibo and Wechat.

Because the citizens are severely limited in forms of protest given the Internet censorship, angry comments complaining about the government's sometimes inhumane measures are usually deleted shortly after publication.

On Friday, April 22, a six-minute "Voices of Shanghai" video began circulating online. It consisted of recorded conversations with local officials and health officials, in which residents of Shanghai express outrage by the conditions created by the government.

In the video a voice can be heard saying, "I woke up at 4 a.m. this morning, and what time is it now, look? We have no drinking water, are there no grocery stores in Shanghai at all?".

Another person says, "I already realized that the virus won't kill us. But starvation can!".

Despite the fact that the original video only stayed online for a few hours, the people of China tried very hard to make this situation public and prevent the censors' plans in every possible way. Someone embedded a qr-code in the video, and someone laid it over the trailer of "Batman" that has been recently released in China. Now the video has even leaked to Instagram and Twitter.

It is important to understand that in a country with a one-party system and a strong sense of civic patriotism, inextricably linked to the approval of the ruling party by the vast majority of the population, such a reaction was impossible to imagine merely a month ago.

In the West, expressing views on controversial topics online is common. However, in China this situation is extremely atypical both because of the fear of revealing ideas contradicting the party line even in the online space, and because of the specifics of the firewall.

This time, the "zero-tolerance" policy and the consequences of its implementation raise serious concerns among citizens, and the party's impeccable image has been shaken even within the country.

The near future will show whether China's approach is viable in the new realities.

Will the Chinese state apparatus be able to use the crisis as an opportunity, or will the situation in Shanghai force China to recognize the imperfection of its current approach to fighting the virus? In any case, the government still has some time before the XX Congress of the Communist Party in the second half of 2022 to determine further direction for their actions.

By Anastasia Tuhtina