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How China's 'zero COVID' pursuit is stoking anger

William Yang Taipei
January 4, 2022

As Chinese authorities impose stringent measures to curb COVID infections, some controversial incidents have sparked public outcry.

Construction workers line up to be tested for COVID in Xi'an, China
Chinese authorities are imposing strict measures to contain the spread of the virusImage: STR/AFP

Over the past two weeks, Chinese authorities have reimposed strict pandemic control measures to curb a new wave of domestic coronavirus outbreaks. However, some of the extreme measures have triggered a public backlash, as Chinese people question the validity of these restrictions.   

For the last 13 days, residents of Xi'an — an ancient capital with 13 million people — have been banned from leaving their homes, causing many of them to run short on food and other essential supplies like medicine.

So far, more than 1,600 confirmed COVID cases have been reported in the city since December 9.

On the Chinese social media platform Weibo, phrases such as "having difficulty to buy food" and "unstable supply of necessities" became hot topics.

Public outcry over supply shortages

One Xi'an resident said that since December 27, all people in the city have been banned from leaving their homes. While many people went shopping the day before the lockdown was imposed, some disadvantaged residents, including elders who live alone, were struggling to get food or the medicines they need.

"I think the authorities will only think about how to prevent the local outbreak from spreading, and as long as people are not starving to death from food shortages, they will not pay too much attention to the wellbeing of the residents in lockdown," the resident, who asked not to be named for fear of reprisals, told DW.

Local authorities admitted on December 29 that, since employees of many logistic businesses couldn't return to work due to the lockdown, the supply of food and other materials have been affected.

Despite a public outcry, the authorities insisted that they have been working to ensure there are enough supplies for all residents of Xi'an. At least two Communist Party officials in the city have been removed from their posts.

Over the last two days, the number of newly confirmed cases has been trending down in China. On January 3, only 95 cases were reported in Xi'an, the first time in ten days that the daily number of new confirmed infections has dropped to below 100 for two days in a row.

Anger on the rise

Public anger toward the authorities' handling of the situation has been on the rise not just because of the stringent restrictions but also due to the seeming lack of compassion.

A video emerged recently showing a young man being beaten by government workers after he left his neighborhood to buy some food.

Though local police said on December 31 that they had taken action against the workers, netizens said the incident reflects local authorities' lack of compassion for residents while enforcing pandemic control rules.

"Many people still don't have enough food at home, and those who are in quarantine haven't received any supplies for 5 to 6 days," wrote one netizen on Weibo.

Another person called for help on Weibo after her father, who suffered a heart attack, was initially rejected by several hospitals in Xi'an even though they had obtained all the necessary documents for him to be admitted into the hospital.

After hours of delay and an emergency surgery, the netizen wrote that she had lost her father.

The original post has reportedly been removed from Weibo. Several people described the situation as "inhumane" while many others confirmed it has been very difficult for citizens to seek the non-COVID medical treatment they need.

The result of China's 'zero COVID' campaign?

Public health experts say the strict enforcement of pandemic control measures has a lot to do with China's aggressive campaign to achieve "zero COVID."

"One of the political goals to maintain zero COVID is to ensure the 2022 Beijing Olympics won't be sabotaged by any domestic outbreak," said Chunhuei Chi, a public health professor at the Oregon State University in the US.

"Additionally, the Chinese government needs to maintain its legitimacy to rule the country both at home and abroad. Domestically, they need to keep domestic outbreaks under control to showcase their governance. Internationally, they need to prove that China is the savior rather than the initiator of the global pandemic. The way to achieve these goals is to show how well Beijing can stick to the goal of zero COVID," he told DW.

Others believe the policy reflects the lack of government accountability in China.

"For local authorities in China, one of the most important goals is achieving zero COVID, as it means a possible career advancement for many of them if they achieve the goal," said Wang Yaqiu, senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch (HRW).

"If people's rights are abused or if their access to health and food is restricted, it doesn't matter to local authorities, because they will not be held accountable."

The practice of public shaming returns

In addition to the strict enforcement of lockdown in Xi'an, incidents featuring public shaming have sparked criticism of authorities' pandemic control measures.

Last week, a video circulating on social media showed armed police in Guangxi province parading four people who reportedly violated COVID prevention measures.

They were in hazmat suits and carried placards that displayed their names and photos. Each of them was guarded by two police officers and circled by another group of police carrying riot gear or holding guns.

According to the state-run Guangxi News, the four were accused of illegally transporting migrants into China even though the country's borders were basically closed due to the pandemic. The news outlet described the measures as disciplinary measures that offered "real-life warning" to the public and "deterred border-related crimes."

However, people and some state-run media questioned the legality of these public shaming practices. The Beijing News, which is owned by the Chinese Communist Party, wrote in an opinion piece that even if the measures were adopted for the purpose of enforcing pandemic control measures, authorities should still avoid measures such as "parading the suspects" from reappearing in China, as they violate the spirit of the rule of law.

Other netizens questioned the actual effect of "parading the suspects."

"Since China is already a country with a sound legal system, if anyone commits any crime, they should be sentenced according to law," wrote one Netizen on Weibo. "Parading suspects is a bad tactic used in feudal society, so it's a bit hard to understand why public security personnel in Guangxi would find such measures appropriate."

'Most Chinese are not willing to speak up'

Some observers point out that human rights violations and public shaming have been a common phenomenon across China since the beginning of the pandemic in 2020, as authorities tried to impose strict measures to contain the spread of the virus.

"This is not a new phenomenon in China. Local authorities have tied residents who allegedly violated regulations to trees to publicly shame them, while others have been publicly criticized in sports stadiums," said Teng Biao, a Chinese human rights lawyer.

While public pressure may force authorities to apologize for their mistakes or impose certain punishments on perpetrators, those who are willing to speak up are still in the minority in China.

"Most Chinese people are not willing to speak up online as they know they may be punished," HRW's Wang told DW. "And since there is no accountability mechanism, local authorities will only respond when they are under a lot of pressure."

Teng believes authorities would often respond by slightly adjusting their inhumane practices. "They may punish some officials who are involved with the practices or simply scapegoat someone, but it is difficult to force them to improve the whole system through public pressure," he said.

Wang also highlighted a new trend emerging from discussions related to the lockdown in Xi'an. When someone criticizes the government online, other nationalistic netizens will come out and accuse them of being supporters of Western governments, she pointed out.

"In the past two years, the Chinese government's censorship and propaganda have become more effective," she said. "It's evident that some people have started to help the government censor others. They have internalized the propaganda."

Edited by: Srinivas Mazumdaru