On Thursday, May 5, the Politburo Standing Committee decreed that there is no place for those who would “distort, doubt, or deny” China’s “dynamic zero-COVID” policy. In response, Shanghai’s already-stringent lockdown immediately intensified as city officials rushed to pursue victory in “the Battle to Defend Shanghai.” At China Media Project, David Bandurski analyzed the language of the PBSC meeting readout, in which Xi Jinping proclaimed that “persistence is victory” in the fight against COVID:
Beyond the message of persistence in the zero-covid policy, we should note language in the readout, commentary and last night’s official Xinwen Lianbo (新闻联播) newscast about “resolutely overcoming lack of awareness, lack of preparation, insufficient work and other problems, and resolutely overcoming contempt, indifference, self-righteousness and other [trends] in thinking.” This language should be read as a direct criticism of unspecified local CCP leaders who have questioned the policies at the center, or who have been insufficiently successful in applying them. And it is difficult not to hear in this phrase about “self-righteousness” (自以为是) a condemnation of leaders in Shanghai in particular.
The resolve to “persist” in the dynamic zero approach comes also with the message that dissent over the policy will not be tolerated. The readout notes that the Party must “resolutely struggle against all distortions, doubts and denials of our epidemic prevention policy.” [Source]
The intensification of Shanghai’s lockdown policy was almost immediate. The city’s entire subway system was shut down for the first time ever. Some housing compounds banned residents from stepping outside and implemented delivery bans of a week or more—a dire measure with most residents currently relying on deliveries and “group buys” for basic groceries. Teams of pandemic workers armed with disinfectant have been deployed to sanitize the homes of all those in central quarantine, as well as any kitchens or bathrooms shared with neighbors. The measures are being framed as a “quiet period” that will last anywhere from three to seven days. A new policy is reported to have drastically expanded the definition of “close contact” to that all those living on the same floor as a confirmed COVID case must be taken to central isolation facilities. A viral video highlighted by CNN showed a disinfectant-waving policeman attempting to corral a family into quarantine describing the policy in these terms: “It’s not that you can do whatever you want—unless you’re in America. This is China [….] Stop asking me why. There is no why.” At The Wall Street Journal, Cao Li reported on the tough new measures, which have halted medical deliveries and inspired written protests:
The abrupt halt in deliveries is a blow to the city’s homebound residents, tens of millions of whom have relied on deliveries as a lifeline during the extended lockdown. One residential community in Shanghai’s Xuhui district halted the distribution of medicine to residents during its three-day “quiet period,” according to a notice seen by the Journal. Authorities at another community in Huangpu district asked residents to inform them if they had any essential medicine deliveries so that they could make alternate arrangements, according to the notice, which was seen by the Journal.
[…] Tong Zhiwei, a professor of constitutional law at Shanghai’s East China University of Political Science and Law, wrote in a widely circulated open letter, which he shared on several chat groups on Sunday, that practices such as forcing residents into quarantine can’t be undertaken without formal approval from the State Council, China’s cabinet, or the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, its legislature.
[…] Another open letter, attributed to Liu Dali, a corporate lawyer in Shanghai, and addressed to the Shanghai Municipal People’s Congress, the city’s local legislative body, also circulated widely online on Sunday. The letter called on authorities to reverse the policy of quarantining neighbors of infected patients, which he said the government was enforcing without any formal announcement. The letter said the measures infringed on people’s basic rights, wouldn’t help the fight against the pandemic and didn’t give residents time to prepare. Mr. Liu couldn’t be reached for comment by phone or through his WeChat account. Three people who know Mr. Liu said he had written the letter. [Source]
The mass construction of new fencing for unclear purposes is another conspicuous aspect of the changes in Shanghai since the Politburo Standing Committee’s meeting:
Changle road, the subject of @rob_schmitz book, was suddenly boarded up on Sunday and now looks like this. This trend does not seem compatible with the lower and lower case numbers reported here 2/3 pic.twitter.com/ukqConGOMm
— Don Weinland (@donweinland) May 10, 2022
Shanghai has five days of ‘silence’ when deliveries are prohibited, and everyone has to stay in – whether or not your neighborhood has been declared clean. If this is really the last stretch, as state media claim, then WHY are those fences being put up? pic.twitter.com/7RlvFekxME
— Eva Rammeloo (@eefjerammeloo) May 10, 2022
Schools in Shanghai have been closed to in-person schooling for over a month. Now, the city has announced that it will delay the annual gaokao, which governs college admissions, and the zhongkao, which serves the same purpose for high schools. The College Board, an American organization that controls Advanced Placement exams, announced that the APs have been canceled across the country. Read more on the impact of COVID restrictions on students in Shanghai and elsewhere via CDT.
The measures have had sometimes tragic side effects. The writer Lian Qingchuan, trapped in his Shanghai apartment, was unable to be at his mother’s side as she died in Fujian. These and other cases have inspired some young Chinese to consider “run philosophy” (rùnxué 润学). The term, based on the English word “run,” refers to emmigration, and its use on Weibo often soars after tragic events. The English term is also a sensitive word on Weibo.
Searches for “移民” increased more than 4x in early April on WeChat. At the same time it is getting harder to get travel documents. Officials in one Hunan city are confiscating passports from citizens. “We’ll return them after the pandemic is over,” they told us when we called.
— Alice Su (@aliceysu) May 6, 2022
Beijing, which has seen scores of COVID cases, has also begun to implement lockdown measures, though not a Shanghai-style total shut down. Schools in the city are now closed indefinitely. Dine-in services are banned; some parks, malls, and other venues are closed; and parts of the capital have been put under varying lockdown measures. The city has also reopened the Xiaotangshan field hospital, which was originally constructed for the 2003 SARS outbreak, and now has 1,200 beds for COVID patients. Despite these measures, many Beijingers are unconcerned about the possibility of a full-scale lockdown because, as one man put it to The Wall Street Journal, “Beijing is the capital city, after all.”
Sun Chunlan, the Politburo’s top COVID fighter, elaborated on the practical policy implications the Politburo’s retrenchment will have for other Chinese cities. Most notably, all major cities must step up their surveillance of the virus by creating “testing circles” within a 15-minute walk of residential compounds. The logistics of such omnipresent monitoring are mind-boggling. One WeChat blog calculated that a city of 5 million would need 1,700 testing sites at a daily testing rate of 3,000 people per site. Extrapolated to the entire nation, China might need 320,000 testing sites.
The Party’s quandary is illuminated by a new study in Nature on the potential effects of abandoning zero-COVID. The unchecked spread of the Omicron variant, the team of Chinese and American researchers found, could potentially kill 1.5 million people by the end of July due to low vaccination rates among China’s elderly and the country’s reliance on domestic vaccines, which are robust but offer less protection than mRNA vaccines at similar dosages. The top epidemiologist on China’s COVID response team warned that “if we choose the so-called policy of coexisting with the virus, medical resources would very likely be overwhelmed.” Yet uptake of third-dose boosters by China’s elderly population has declined markedly during Shanghai’s lockdown. Financial Times data reporter Andy Lin compiled a tweet thread explaining that slowdown:
China has been slow to vaccinate its elderly. Now, it’s even slower. Last week, an average of 0.3mn elderly people received their boosters every day, official figures show. One month ago, it was 0.6mn. 100mn elderly people are still without third doses now. Why this slowdown? 1/7 pic.twitter.com/nHtUU9c8xk
— Andy Lin 林佳賢 (@imandylin2) May 10, 2022
Beijing’s words are driving local officials to achieving zero covid, with locals discouraged from going out (and getting jabbed) and medical staff busy testing residents (instead of giving shots). Vaccine refuseniks are emboldened as zero covid holds. 6/7 https://t.co/INRJkjXaL8
— Andy Lin 林佳賢 (@imandylin2) May 10, 2022
Michael Schuman, a writer for The Atlantic, provided perspective on China’s anti-COVID policies:
The debates about China’s zero-Covid can be too polarized. The reality is that the policy both saves lives and abuses human rights. It makes sense to a degree, to prevent a public health crisis, but is also irrational and excessive.
— Michael Schuman (@MichaelSchuman) May 10, 2022