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Shanghai’s Covid lockdown tests Chinese leadership

Parents have organized petitions, imploring the government not to separate children infected with the coronavirus from their families. Patients demanded to speak with superiors about the shoddy conditions in the isolation facilities. Residents have confronted officials over lockdown policies they consider unfair or inhumane, then shared recordings of those arguments online.

As the coronavirus sweeps through Shanghai, in the city’s worst outbreak since the pandemic began, authorities have deployed their usual playbook to try to stamp out transmission, whatever the cost. What has been different is the response: a wave of public discontent rarely seen in China since the pandemic’s chaotic early days in Wuhan.

The crisis in Shanghai promises to be more than just a public health challenge. It is also a political test of the zero-tolerance approach as a whole, on which the Communist Party has staked its legitimacy.

For much of the past two years, the Chinese government has stifled most domestic criticism of its zero-tolerance Covid strategy, thanks to a mixture of censorship, arrests and success in keeping case numbers low. . But in Shanghai, which has recorded more than 70,000 cases since March 1, it is proving more difficult.

Shanghai is China’s most populous metropolis, its shimmering commercial heart. It is home to a vibrant middle class and much of China’s business, cultural and academic elite. A large proportion of overseas-educated Chinese live in Shanghai, and the per capita disposable income of residents is the highest in the country. Even in a country where dissent is dangerous, many have long since found ways to demand government responsiveness and have a say in their own lives.

“I’m just too angry, too sad,” said Kristine Wu, a 28-year-old tech company employee who was visited at her home by two police officers after criticizing the city’s Communist Party leader. on social networks. She recorded her defiant confrontation with them, in which she asked why they were wasting time harassing her, when they could help people in need of care. She later shared a photo of the encounter on social media, despite officers’ warnings against it. (It was later censored.)

“I thought, whatever, I’m going to go,” said Ms Wu, who didn’t consider herself political before the lockdown. “I used to live quite comfortably, and before anything happened, everyone was very polite, very respectful of the rules. Now all of that has just come crashing down.

For now, the government seems largely indifferent. A Chinese vice premier visited Shanghai and demanded that officials focus on eliminating cases “without hesitation”. Public health experts have warned that China is unprepared for life with the coronavirus, with just over half of people aged 80 and over fully vaccinated by the end of March. Moreover, the Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, presented the country’s suppression of the virus as proof of the superiority of its model of governance; maintaining that line will be particularly important this year, when he is set to claim an unprecedented third term.

But by shutting down Shanghai, an economic engine that contributes 4% of China’s gross domestic product, authorities have reignited questions about the costs of their approach, particularly in the face of the highly transmissible and relatively mild Omicron variant. If even Shanghai could be cut off, people might worry there’s no limit to how far the government will go, said Lynette Ong, a political scientist at the University of Toronto.

“The fact that Shanghai is on lockdown suggests that we are quite close to the red line, the tolerable limit of Covid zero accuracy,” Prof Ong said. “It’s a big city with a population of 25 million, and it’s extremely difficult to go through lockdown – it’s pretty close to people’s psychological breaking point.”

For most of the pandemic, Shanghai offered an alternative view of China’s containment strategy. While other places that detected even a few cases found themselves in widespread lockdowns, Shanghai isolated individual buildings. Dr. Zhang Wenhong, an infectious disease expert who helped guide the city’s response, has won admirers across the country for advocating a more restrained approach. The Global Times, a state-owned nationalist tabloid, hailed Shanghai’s “precise and targeted lockdown”.

Even after the number of cases hit record highs last month, officials insisted Shanghai could not be locked down due to its economic importance.

But the cases continued to rise, and the central government probably got nervous, said Yanzhong Huang, director of the Center for Global Health Studies at Seton Hall University.

“They may have worried that if this situation cannot be brought under control in a short period of time, it threatens social and economic stability,” Dr Huang said. “It could also derail leadership transition in the months to come.”

The deployment of the heaviest methods, however, sparked chaos, shocking a city whose standards of medical care are among the highest in the country. At least two people with asthma have died after being denied treatment by health workers citing Covid protocols. Chronically ill patients have had their surgeries postponed indefinitely or unable to get medicine, forcing them to post desperate pleas for help online. Aged care facilities are strained by outbreaks.

Whatever pride Shanghainese had taken from their city’s response turned into dismay and outrage. When local officials asked residents of a neighborhood to sing patriotic songs to lift their spirits, they instead joined in a chorus of curses, according to footage leaked online. After authorities confirmed they were separating infected children from uninfected parents, a petition to allow children with mild or no symptoms to self-isolate at home garnered more than 24,000 signatures in three hours, before to be censored. This week, residents of Baoshan Township banged pots and pans and shouted, “We want food!” We don’t want to starve.

Some responses were more light-hearted, though still reflecting the dire circumstances. Three local rappers wrote a viral song about panic buying groceries.

Even city officials expressed frustration with the new management. In a leaked recording of a phone call between a Shanghai resident and an alleged employee of the city’s Center for Disease Control, the staffer said she believed the approach to the outbreak had become politicized. (Although officials did not confirm the authenticity of the recording, they later said they were investigating its contents.)

Amid continued backlash, authorities made some concessions, this week allowing some infected children to stay with their parents and delivery drivers to return to work.

Jin Dongyan, a virologist at the University of Hong Kong, said Shanghai’s educated and connected population was more likely than other people in China to be skeptical of the measures, especially given the lower severity of the Omicron variant. . Chinese propaganda has often highlighted the dangers of the virus.

In Shanghai, “many people have a good understanding of the disease and the virus, as well as what is happening in other places” who have pulled out of the toughest restrictions, Dr Jin said. “They just don’t feel like it’s going to work.”

Jeremy Wu, a 26-year-old Shanghai native, is now wondering whether he should have returned to China from Australia, where he was a student.

Mr. Wu returned to Shanghai in the fall of 2020, believing the city would be one of the few places in China where authorities would limit cases while avoiding excessive restrictions. When his friends from the northwest city of Xi’an were locked down earlier this year, he felt relieved to be in Shanghai.

“While sympathizing with my friends, in my mind I was thinking, ‘Thank God this would never happen in Shanghai,'” Wu said.

“What a ‘da lian’ moment this is for me,” he added, using Chinese slang to suggest punching himself in the face when proven wrong.

Yet despite all the discontent in Shanghai, support for zero Covid remains high across much of China. Nationalist social media users have accused the city of arrogance or a lack of patriotism for initially pursuing its own approach. Even in Shanghai, some said the city should have closed sooner.

The central government has addressed propaganda about the need for drastic measures in Shanghai, recently deploying more than 2,000 military doctors and thousands of other medical professionals from other provinces to the city.

Chen Daoyin, a former assistant professor at Shanghai University of Political Science and Law, said Beijing had clearly doubled down on zero Covid and brought Shanghai in line with the rest of the country.

“In a system like China’s, where politics determines everything,” he said, “it’s impossible for you to go any other way.”

Reports and research contributed by Joy Dong, Li you and John Liu.


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