China's zero-Covid policy not about health but power and surveillance

China’s demented zero-Covid policy is no longer about health… It’s about power and mass surveillance, writes author IAN WILLIAMS

The scene is like something from a horror film. A horde of terrified shoppers battling a crew of uniformed guards, desperate to escape the building in which they have been locked.

It looks like hysteria after a terror attack — yet this is footage from a Saturday afternoon at an Ikea store in Shanghai, following an announcement that a Covid case had been traced to the shop.

A message blared over the sound system that the store was going into lockdown and police were on their way to put everybody inside into quarantine. Mobile phone footage captured the chaos as shoppers abandoned trollies and stampeded towards the exits, crowds fighting security staff trying to seal off the building.

The Ikea lockdown took place in August after a single shopper had been exposed to a six-year-old boy with an asymptomatic dose of Covid-19. Those unable to escape were barricaded inside for four hours before being bussed to quarantine.

Eventually 83,000 people in the area were tested in connection with the boy’s case, but nobody apart from the boy himself tested positive, according to the local government.

Fresh in the minds of those panicked shoppers was the grim experience of a two-month lockdown in Shanghai earlier this year. People died because of lack of access to health care. Children were separated from parents and forced into quarantine. There were food shortages. Residents were barricaded in their apartment buildings.

This cycle of madness seems to be the new normal in President Xi Jinping’s China.

Relentless: Chinese leader Xi Jinping 

Medical workers in protective suits collect swabs from residents at a testing site during a third round of mass testing following Covid cases in Shanxi province, China

Last weekend, Li Qiang, the Communist Party boss of Shanghai, was rewarded for his zero-Covid fanaticism. At a party congress in Beijing, he was promoted by party leader Xi Jinping to be his second in command. He was also made a member of the party’s seven-man standing committee and is expected to be confirmed as premier early next year.

At the same gathering, Xi tightened his grip on power, grabbing an unprecedented third term. This made him China’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong. Qiang applauded heartily as Xi doubled down on his Covid strategy, describing the battle to eliminate the virus as a ‘people’s war’.

China’s borders will remain effectively closed and there is to be no let-up in the endless cycles of lockdowns and mass testing. Not a nod from Xi towards the huge economic costs, the social toll and mental stress he is imposing on China in pursuit of a goal few experts believe achievable.

Xi’s position seems even more ludicrous in the context of a bombshell U.S. Senate report that found the Covid pandemic was most likely caused by a leak from a research facility in Wuhan.

It’s clear that zero-Covid is now primarily about politics, power and mass surveillance, not health. Its rigid enforcement has become a gauge of loyalty to the president. Defeating the virus has become central to the cult of Xi, for whom it is a measure of the Chinese Communist Party’s superiority over the West.

The revolutionary language is no accident. If Mao had his red guards waving their little red books, Xi has his white guards, the hazmat-suited zealots waving swabs before hauling people to quarantine.

Last week a Covid outbreak hit ‘iPhone city’, a vast factory complex in Zhengzhou, central China, which employs about 350,000 people and assembles half the world’s Apple phones.

Metal barriers were put up and workers restricted to the factory floor and their dorms.

Videos on Chinese social media showing workers pleading for food and medicines were quickly taken down.

City authorities reported 69 cases, but workers claimed the real figure was far higher.

No escape: Guards lock in shoppers at Ikea

Parts of Wuhan, where the virus was first recorded, are back in lockdown. Some 28 cities across China were this week implementing lockdown measures, according to analysts at Nomura, affecting about 207 million people.

China is virtually alone in trying to eliminate the virus when almost all the world is learning to live with it, and the zero-Covid policy is causing widespread anger and resentment.

A lockdown last month in Shenzhen, China’s high-tech hub, triggered angry protests. Videos showed a crowd facing off against police wearing protective medical gear, including blue gowns, masks and visors.

‘Lift the lockdown,’ protesters yelled, pushing against hastily erected barriers. Some threw plastic bottles at the police. A woman can be heard shouting: ‘The police are hitting people.’

The protest, one of several reported in the city, followed an order for residents of three districts to stay at home after just ten infections were detected. Subway stations were closed, and affected areas cordoned off.

‘Now it’s so difficult to work,’ Zhu Min Lee (not his real name) told the Mail from nearby Guangzhou, which has also been hit by lockdowns. He said he and his friends were in despair since even travelling relatively short distances between cities requires multiple tests and instant quarantine if the virus is detected.

He estimated that a quarter of his friends had lost their jobs. ‘It’s a different world here now. Even going into central Guangzhou is a pain. As for going overseas, no way.’

Like everyone in China, Lee has on his mobile phone a compulsory medical app that contains all his personal and health data and tracks his movements and interactions. ‘We are stopped, and our phones scanned wherever you go,’ he said. ‘It’s like living in a jail.’ He said the surveillance is no longer just about health. ‘They [the Communist Party] say it’s to control Covid, but they use it to spy on people.’

Lee said he and his friends were deeply depressed after the Communist Party congress and Xi’s pledge to double down on zero-Covid. ‘We can’t take this [policy] again for the next two years… This is 1984,’ he said, referring to George Orwell’s dystopian novel.

The surveillance is accompanied by a barrage of party propaganda. Slogans online, as well as on television and loudspeaker, urge people to ‘Extinguish every outbreak!’ telling them ‘history will remember those who contributed’.

Last month, Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province, and a city of 21 million people, locked down after 157 new cases were found.

Not even a 6.8 magnitude earthquake, which killed at least 65 people, persuaded the authorities to allow residents to seek safety outside their shaken apartment blocks and quarantine centres.

Online video showed officials in protective gear preventing residents of one block from leaving their locked lobby. Videos also showed city dwellers brawling over food and stripping shelves bare. Other footage showed mile-long queues of people waiting to be tested.

Epidemiologist Liang Wannian, boasted that China is now able to test one billion people in a single day. He seemed to think this was something to be proud of, adding that there is ‘no timeline’ for an exit from zero-Covid rules.

The most chilling videos emerging from Chengdu and other cities are of drones, weaving between high-rises and hovering outside apartment windows. ‘This community is in total lockdown now. Stay in your room,’ they broadcast at startled residents.

Chengdu is also the home of Hu Zhimin, a poet, who has not been heard from since she penned a satire that gave voice to the widespread helplessness, frustration and anger resulting from Xi’s obsession with zero-Covid. In Waiting For The Wind she wrote, ‘We have no idea if it will be an east wind or a west wind, this autumn… a wind that blows forwards, or one that blows backwards. We are just waiting here like puppets… to hear our fate.’

The last thing she posted before her social media accounts were deleted was that she had been ‘invited to tea’, a euphemism for being hauled before the security police.

And there was anger when a bus carrying people to a quarantine facility in the southwestern province of Guizhou overturned on a motorway last month, killing all 27 on board.

This seemed to underline the madness of the zero-Covid policy, as only two people have died from the disease in the province since the pandemic began. The crash sparked an outpouring of despair on social media as people described their own experiences of being forcibly quarantined.

Last weekend, Li Qiang (second left), the Communist Party boss of Shanghai, was rewarded for his zero-Covid fanaticism. At a party congress in Beijing, he was promoted by party leader Xi Jinping (left) to be his second in command

At the same gathering, Xi tightened his grip on power, grabbing an unprecedented third term. This made him China’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong. Pictured: President Xi looks on as former President Hu Jintao (centre) speaks to him as he is escorted from the closing session of the 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China on October 22

In one account, dozens of passengers were squeezed on to a bus for 12 hours without being allowed to eat, go to the lavatory or even open the windows until their arrival at the quarantine hotel.

‘When will all of this stop?’ asked another. No time soon, is the answer. Shanghai is spending 1.6 billion yuan (£191 million) on a vast quarantine facility which will have more than 3,000 isolation rooms with 3,250 beds. It is one of a string of mass quarantine centres being built across the country — gulags reminiscent of the ‘re-education’ centres built across Xinjiang to imprison Uyghurs and other Muslims.

These include a 5,000-room centre on an area the size of 46 football fields at Guangzhou, the Chinese city from where Zu Min Lee spoke to the Mail. Lee, aged 53, has yet to be inoculated. He simply does not trust Chinese vaccines. ‘I think a lot of people like me, freelancers, people who work for themselves, don’t trust the vaccine,’ he said. He dreams of travelling to nearby Hong Kong to have a foreign vaccine, but the strict quarantine rules make that impossible.

Xi is ever more boxed in by his zero-Covid strategy. His motives are now increasingly political, but that does not mean there are no health risks, largely of his own making.

China is being emboldened by the Foreign Office’s ‘pathetic’ response to the Hong Kong protesters attack in Manchester, Tory grandee warns


China has been emboldened by the Foreign Office’s ‘pathetic’ response to an attack on Hong Kong democracy protesters outside a consulate in Britain, Sir Iain Duncan Smith said last night.

The former Tory party leader said he was ‘absolutely seething’ at the ‘weakness’ of the Government amid allegations of brutality by Chinese officials outside the consulate in Manchester earlier this month.

Former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith (right) with Honk Kong protester Bob Chan (left), on October 19

Foreign Secretary James Cleverly summoned Chinese envoy Yang Xiaoguang to explain what happened, but left it to an official to meet him.

Sir Iain said: ‘We did not act with strength and the Secretary of State did not choose to see [Mr Yang]. This is a sign of weakness. The only word for the Foreign Office is pathetic.’

Pro-democracy protesters gathered outside the consulate on October 16 and one had to be rescued by police after scuffles erupted and he was dragged into the grounds and beaten.

A third of over-60s are still not fully vaccinated, many sharing Lee’s fears. Chinese vaccines are less effective than Western jabs, especially against the latest Omicron variants, and Xi has stubbornly refused to allow foreign vaccines to be imported.

The impact is affecting the young particularly. Urban youth unemployment rates are almost 20 per cent, and doctors report soaring levels of mental illness as a result of the isolation of lockdown.

This has been exacerbated by the frequent and forcible separation of children from their parents in quarantine.

The widespread sense of despair is shared by a 28-year-old Shanghai resident who spoke to the Mail on condition his name was not given, over fears for his safety. He said in the earlier, deadlier phase of the pandemic, government controls were supported, but that has changed.

‘Many people are becoming exhausted — three years of living an uncertain life, having online classes, hardly any travel, constant Covid tests, short-noticed lockdowns and crippled businesses. People desperately need to take a breath.’

Beijing hinted last week it might ease the rules for foreign business people flying into China. Those able to get visas are required to take multiple tests and quarantine for ten days on arrival, before being subjected to the Orwellian surveillance after leaving the often-squalid quarantine facilities. The risk of sudden lockdowns is always there. Few will believe it worth the effort. Foreign businesses are reviewing their supply chains, moving away from China. Apple is shifting some production of its latest iPhone to India.

This year, the Communist Party imposed a de facto international travel ban on its people, forbidding them from going overseas for ‘non-essential’ reasons.

The Chinese National Immigration Administration said it would tighten the issuing of travel document like passports, and strictly limit those looking to leave.

After the party congress there has been a surge in the number of wealthy Chinese looking for a way out of the country for their families — and their money.

Singapore lawyers have described Xi’s consolidation of power and his doubling down on zero-Covid as a tipping point for the country’s elite, with ‘family offices’ — fixers who specialise in such services for the rich — reporting a jump in inquiries.

Cai Qi, the Beijing party boss, has hinted strict zero-Covid controls could last five more years. He is another zealot promoted to the party’s standing committee.

More and more people now share the sentiments of the brave protester who before the party congress strung a banner across a Beijing bridge that read, ‘We want food, not PCR tests. We want freedom, not lockdowns. We want respect, not lies.’ Images of it were shared widely on social media before censors struck.

This weekend, fresh outbreaks — and the inevitable lockdowns — have been reported across several provinces.

In the north-western city of Xining, residents are again pleading for food and other essentials on social media. Anti-lockdown protests have been reported in the Tibetan capital, Lhasa. Zero-Covid is like a monster that has taken on a life of its own, but it is Xi’s monster. He says he wants to kill off Covid for good. Instead, he is stoking anger and killing trust, aspiration and hope in the future of his country.

  • Ian Williams is author of The Fire Of The Dragon: China’s New Cold War, published by Birlinn.

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