Ideas
April 20, 2022 12:57 PM EDT
Osman leads the Tony Blair Institute’s China work. She's also the co-founder of Oxford University’s Silk Road Think-Tank and has translated for China's Central Compilation and Translation Bureau.

For the past two years, Chinese President Xi Jinping has enjoyed a luxury unavailable to many other leaders: a population almost entirely on board with his approach to COVID-19. But in the last week, as censors took their foot off the pedal on Weibo for just a few hours, the extent of Xi’s new challenge became clear.

As case rates in Shanghai reach levels not seen since Wuhan in 2020, the Chinese public are having to make a fresh set of calculations, weighing up the human and economic costs of some of the world’s strictest lockdown measures. Online, some social media users blasted a policy that has cut many in Shanghai off from fresh food, medical care and, in the most extreme cases, their children—all while the city’s authorities claim there’s been just a handful of deaths from COVID-19.

Until recently, China’s zero-COVID policy—enforced by sealed borders and short, sharp lockdowns—had been an easy sell. While much of the rest of the world was plunged in and out of lockdowns, its government was delivering something approaching life as normal.

The problem is that now, while other countries begin “living with the virus,” China’s central leadership remains bound both politically and practically to its zero-COVID strategy. It’s difficult to overstate the political legitimacy that has been staked on China’s ability to protect its population from the virus, not to mention the two years of high-profile firings that have incentivised local officials down the chain to pursue zero-COVID at all costs. And even if Xi was willing to take the political hit, the health system just isn’t up to the challenge: ICU capacity is just one tenth that of the U.S., and behind impressive overall vaccination rates lurks a figure to strike fear in the heart of any epidemiologist—only 51% of over-80s are fully vaccinated.

Yet while the authorities may be clear on China’s direction, the public is less convinced. Shanghai’s outbreak has exposed the human fallout of heavy-handed lockdown measures. Many apartment complexes have struggled to access basic goods, while some critically ill patients have been denied access to routine medical care. Most contentious of all has been the separation of children and babies from their parents as part of a policy to quarantine all positive cases in government facilities.

To be clear, the damage is still far less than letting the virus rip through the population. Gloating pundits seem to have conveniently forgotten the West’s own death rates in their rush to share videos—some of which are easily proven fakes—that show the supposed impending collapse of Xi’s regime.

However, the authorities still have a real problem on their hands. All of a sudden, social media users are openly discussing the possibilities of scrapping some of China’s strictest measures , or even moving towards living with the virus. Others just vent frustrations built up over weeks or months trapped indoors. This is by no means a wholesale turn against China’s policy—there’s still no shortage of fierce zero-COVID loyalists—but it still would have been unthinkable just a few months ago.

The real risk is that authorities inadvertently play into this emergent polarisation. Consider Shanghai’s staggeringly low rate of symptomatic cases—on April 5th, as cases soared, just 322 out of nearly 20,000 reported cases were classed as symptomatic, compared to a rough rate of 50% elsewhere in China and abroad. Mass testing, which picks up normally undetected cases, is part of the reason, but so is a purposefully high barrier for classifying cases. The insistence of Shanghai authorities that only pneumonia-like symptoms count as confirmed symptomatic cases may keep headline figures artificially low, but long-term it makes life trickier: how do you justify such heavy-handed measures for a disease you claim is overwhelmingly asymptomatic?

Authorities face a similar Catch-22 on deaths. Despite repeated anecdotal reports of deaths in elder care facilities, and more than 320,000 cases, Shanghai’s official death rate for this wave still sits at 17. It’s no surprise that local officials have been reluctant to announce the city’s first deaths on their watch but refusing the public transparency on the real risks of Omicron will do little to encourage China’s 17 million unvaccinated over-80s to come forward for vital jabs.

This mixed messaging is likely to result in a growing rift in public opinion. Already social media users are beginning to accuse each other of belonging to opposing “zero tolerance” or “co-existence” camps. And while infections in Shanghai may be passing their peak, the debate won’t be going anywhere. New outbreaks are beginning to pop up across the country, promising new challenges if they spread to under-resourced cities and rural areas—or to the political centre of Beijing.

Local governments across the country will be learning from Shanghai’s mistakes, and antiviral drugs will help cushion the blow of new outbreaks, but neither will address China’s underlying issue: a distinct lack of an exit strategy. And without a clear plan from the top, debate and dissent at the grassroots level will only grow.

Two years of genuinely world-leading success means China, understandably, doesn’t take kindly to international moralising about its approach to COVID-19. But it does have to listen to its own people—and it looks like they could be about to head in very different directions.

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