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Zero-Covid: How Xi’s flagship policy is spoiling his party

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The idea was to have China in stable and tip-top shape when thousands of delegates gather in Beijing to usher in a historic third term in power for Xi Jinping.

However, the coronavirus is not playing nicely.

In recent weeks, tens of millions of people have again been confined to their homes in lockdowns across 60 towns and cities and this is bringing political pressure on the man who has become the most powerful Chinese figure since the first Communist-era leader Mao Zedong.

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The government’s ongoing “Dynamic zero-Covid” strategy is inextricably linked to Mr Xi. Its success is his success. Its failure? Well, it would be a brave person who tried to pin it on him.

Elsewhere, vaccine rollouts have meant learning to live with the virus, but this one major economy stands alone, clinging to a response designed to quash every outbreak.

Strict lockdowns, mass testing, constant scanning of health codes and travel restrictions have stopped China’s hospitals from being swamped. But it’s come at a cost – official youth unemployment stands at 18.7%. Earlier this year it was nudging 20%.

Yet even in the face of significant economic and societal pressure, the government has not really turned to the one thing which might hasten an end to the crisis. While it has been prepared to enforce strict compliance in all other areas of Covid policy, it has not pushed vaccination with anywhere near the same enthusiasm.

There is no compulsion to be vaccinated. There’s barely a public awareness campaign.

And it has stubbornly limited vaccination to locally developed vaccines only when research shows they are not as efficient as those produced internationally. It really does look like national pride trumping science.

Image source, Getty Images

To an extent, this superpower is getting by. Nearly a fifth of the earth’s population are, in one way or another, going about their daily lives inside a giant bubble. But they are doing this while people’s livelihoods are being smashed.

This week, rail services out of Xinjiang were suspended and many parts of the western region including its capital Urumqi were under lockdown as officials admitted they had failed to stop the virus spreading.

China’s stricter lockdowns have seen widespread reports of people unable to source food and medicine – but zero-Covid is affecting people’s daily lives in myriad other ways too.

Three years into the crisis, this is exhausting the population.

Life beyond the roadblock

On the outskirts of Beijing, workers on modest incomes live in an area called Yanjiao because the rent is cheaper. It is on the other side of a river, just inside neighbouring Hebei province.

In normal times, this wouldn’t matter but in the pandemic it can mean having to run the gauntlet of roadblocks to travel from where you live to where you work.

In June this year, a cluster of cases saw people living in Yanjiao prevented from entering the capital, leading to clashes between police who were enforcing the border closure and employees trying to get to work.

Since then, locals have been seen paddling across the water in inflatable craft to sneak into the city.

At the time of writing, the border is open but everyone entering Beijing must show their IDs which are linked to health code apps.

Every morning in Yanjiao, buses can be seen lined up, stopping before they cross over, so police can board and check that everyone has a clean bill of health.

The delays have made the commuters of Yanjiao seem unreliable in the eyes of employers.

testing in Beijing, june 2022

Image source, Getty Images

“Many people who live in this area got fired by their companies,” said one woman in the queue for the bus. “And, if they find new work, they might get treated unfairly again.”

The ancient capital is quiet

We take a train from Beijing to Xi’an. Upon arrival there is a huge logjam at the station, as thousands of travellers attempt to download the local health app after coming down the stairs from the platform. Then everyone has to do a new PCR test before leaving the station.

Xi’an has been a driver of inland China’s economy since the years when it was the start of the old Silk Road stretching across central Asia into the Middle East and Europe. These days, the city is supposed to be one of the county’s top tourist draws.

We meet Addison Sun, a specialist English-language tour guide and ask him how damaging the pandemic has been for his industry

“Wow! For international tourism 100%,” he says. “Because no one can come to China, no one can come to Xi’an.”

The number of domestic tourists prepared to travel is also way down. If you are visiting somewhere and a few coronavirus cases emerge, the city can be locked down. But even if it isn’t, your own city can suddenly decide not to accept you back if you’ve been somewhere with infections. You’re stranded, sometimes for an extended period, and you have to pay for your accommodation and other needs.

There have been several stay-at-home lockdowns in Xi’an, one keeping 13 million people indoors for a month. So at times the sites at the home of the famed Terracotta Warriors have been empty.

worker disinfects site in Xi'an

Image source, Getty Images

As his work stopped, Addison Sun says he slipped into depression.

“No income. This is my lowest point,” he says. “And, you know, as a man, I couldn’t do anything. I’d ask my wife, ‘Hi darling can you give me 100 or 200 [yuan]’?”

He pulled himself out of the mire one day when looking at his eight-year-old – “I have to stand up because I should be the model. I’m the hero for my daughter” – and began posting virtual tours of Xi’an online. He’s now also teaching English but longs for the day when foreign tourists return.

The city’s Muslim Quarter, which historians say dates back to the Tang Dynasty, should be packed with visitors. Stallholders still line the streets calling out, advertising the kebabs and sweets they have, but their restaurants have very few customers. Along the narrow lanes the tarps blow in the wind where shops have closed.

“I paid two years rent the day before the lockdown,” says Zhang Min, who runs a little shop selling the belts and bags she makes. “We’re from the countryside. We just wanted to achieve something by ourselves.”

She breaks down describing how she had hoped to give her mother a better life.

When does she think things will get back to normal? “It’s hard to know,” she says. “Outbreaks come again and again.”

Trust dwindles in the ‘world’s factory’

For decades, China’s economic transformation has been powered by exports, but zero-Covid means some overseas buyers are sourcing their products elsewhere because of fears of disruption to China’s supply chains.

Dieshiqiao in Jiangsu Province, just north of Shanghai, is a hub for the clothing industry.

china health code app

Image source, Getty Images

At a small factory, staff are hunched over their sewing machines, furiously making up for an entire season of lost production following a lockdown.

The bosses had started to explain their recent challenges when a man walks in and starts secretly filming us on his phone. He then goes and speaks to the owners – the interview is off.

“I’m really sorry. We just can’t do it,” says one of the company owners.

While people here are legally entitled to be interviewed, who would defy the Communist Party in this way?

Before the pandemic, China’s growth was around 6%. Its most recent GDP figure was 0.4%. The local government knows that zero-Covid is tanking the economy and doesn’t want anyone speaking about it.

In a small shop selling items for bedding, a woman tells us their sales are down by half.

Then another woman suddenly appears in the shop, posing as a customer. “Hey what are you talking about?” she asks in an effort to appear genuinely curious.

After we leave, she returns and questions the shop owners.

Questions over homegrown vaccines

One of the architects of the policy which has stopped the coronavirus from ripping through China is Professor Liang Wannian, head of the government’s Covid expert panel.

When we speak to him, he acknowledges that China’s home-grown vaccines are not as effective at stopping infection as had been hoped, but says they do prevent severe illness and death.

When does he thinks zero-Covid might come to an end? “It’s hard to say,” he replies.

“Because one thing I am sure of is, we won’t kill the virus any time soon. We’re waiting for more effective medicines and more effective vaccines.”

A key blockage standing in the way of re-opening is the significant body of people who don’t think it’s safe to be vaccinated.

Liang Wannian

Image source, Getty Images

The Chinese authorities are prepared to separate elderly grandparents and young children from their families and force them into quarantine centres or lock down entire cities for months, but vaccination doesn’t feel like a priority.

Some Chinese doctors have even been telling their patients that they should not get the shots. As a result many analysts don’t believe that official statistics accurately reflect the true level of vaccination.

Professor Liang knows there’s a problem in this area.

“Many old people have underlying diseases. They reckon it won’t be safe to get vaccinated. But in fact, it is safe. We need to get this message across,” he says. It’s a significant admission.

“China has been working on it but there’s a lot of room for progress,” he adds.

Could zero-Covid be lifted after the Communist Party Congress in mid-October? “It’s hard for me to answer that,” he says with an awkward laugh. “I’m just a scholar”.

China has successfully minimised the impact of the virus – and if it re-opened tomorrow, the disease would spread like wildfire.

But, at the moment, it feels like the government is just kicking the can down the road. Remaining cut off from the outside world is coming at a cost.

There are no easy options, but China can’t go on like this forever.

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