No good options?

Zero-Covid policy sparks rare protests in key cities


Protestors held blank paper sheets

Assuming there was a mechanism in place to ask the question, now might be the time for the Chinese government to conduct a nationwide poll with the following query: “Do you favour an end to zero-Covid if it means a return to a way of life you consider normal, but which might also mean the deaths of 5-10 million of your fellow citizens?”

A similar dilemma – without quite the same number of lives at risk, perhaps – gripped other governments in choosing to switch to a ‘live with it’ approach to Covid-19.

In most countries, the decision was taken to move beyond the strict lockdowns and restrictions that characterised the initial response to the virus. There was an end to mandatory wearing of face masks and the freeing up of restrictions that prevented people from gathering in public places.

The situation is very different for the Chinese, of course. The contrasting circumstances even sparked consternation among Chinese television viewers of live World Cup matches in Qatar, who have marvelled online at the absence of Covid-related restrictions inside stadiums. As a result, state censors are said to be trying to cut back on images of maskless fans enjoying the football (a difficult task, given the nature of much of the coverage).

Even today – three years after the first cases of the coronavirus were reported in Hubei’s Wuhan – the official stance is to stick to the policy of “dynamic zero-Covid”, which calls for strict prevention measures like mass testing and district-wide lockdowns. In extreme cases millions of people are being confined to their homes when local outbreaks are detected.

This high-pressure approach to containing the pandemic has triggered periodic protests, but the unrest has taken on a new intensity and scale since late October.

In Henan province, for instance, Covid controls resulted in a vast exodus of workers from Foxconn’s gigantic iPhone factory and public acceptance of ‘zero-Covid’ has stretched closer to breaking point since then, with reports of significant demonstrations in cities including Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou.

The wave of protests seems to have been triggered by a deadly fire in an apartment block in Urumqi in Xinjiang that killed at least 10 people. The local government denied that delays in the rescue effort were due to lockdown measures. But the story was enough to provoke street protests, fuelled by frustration with the approach to containing Covid.

Footage made the rounds on social media showing crowds voicing their displeasure with Covid controls. Widely forwarded images featured demonstrators holding up blank pieces of paper in symbolic protest, while international media outlets even picked up on rare instances of dissent aimed directly towards the Chinese leadership, with one video featuring a group of protestors chanting “Down with Xi Jinping!”

Reports on the protests and discussion of the contributing factors was avoided in the state media, while censors soon spiked most of the offending comment on social media platforms.

A number of more patriotic KOLs put out the contrasting view that – despite the growing discontent towards zero-Covid – the policy is still well supported by hundreds of millions of Chinese. Plenty of Chinese still support the stance taken by healthcare authorities that switching to a ‘live with it’ strategy could lead to millions of deaths among vulnerable groups of the population too. A few have even posted videos showing, in contrast, other members of the public berating the demonstrators for their behaviour.

Having said all that, a broader reversal of the zero-Covid stance isn’t out of the question. Hong Kong was on the verge of a full lockdown in February, after Xi ordered its government to “take all necessary measures” to protect lives amid a surge in Covid cases. Less than a month later, the former colony had abandoned any pretence of a zero-Covid strategy. The authorities – forced by the exponential growth in Omicron cases – had little choice but to adopt a ‘live with it’ approach when millions got infected and containment was no longer viable. The territory has since attempted no lockdowns and later relaxed many of its Covid policies.

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