China zero-Covid: As anger mounts and tragedies mount, Beijing shows no signs of budging

A version of this story appeared on CNN’s Meanwhile in China, a thrice-weekly update that examines what you need to know about the country’s rise and how it’s affecting the world. Register here.


Peking
CNN

Zhou, a car salesman in northeastern China, last saw his father alive in a video chat on the afternoon of Nov. 1, hours after their home in a Beijing suburb was locked down.

At the time, they didn’t even realize that immediate Covid restrictions had been imposed – there was no advance warning and there were no cases in the apartment building where Zhou’s parents and his 10-year-old son lived, he said.

The family found this out the hard way when Zhou’s father was denied immediate medical attention after he suddenly began having difficulty breathing during a video call. Zhou and his son made a dozen ambulance calls, he said, claiming security blocked relatives from entering the building to take the 58-year-old grandfather to hospital.

An hour later, an ambulance finally arrived to take Zhou’s father to a hospital just five minutes away. But it was too late to save him.

“The local government killed my father,” Zhou told CNN in his Beijing home, breaking down in tears. He said he received no explanation as to why the ambulance took so long to arrive, only a death certificate with the wrong date of death.

Zhou’s anger is part of a growing tide of opposition to China’s unrelenting lockdowns, which authorities say are necessary to protect lives from the virus. that, according to the official count, it has killed just six people out of the tens of thousands of symptomatic cases reported in the past six months.

But increasingly, the restrictions — not the virus — are being blamed for the heartbreaking deaths that have sparked national outrage on social media.

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On the same day Zhou lost his father, a 3-year-old boy died of gas poisoning in a locked compound in the northwestern city of Lanzhou after being blocked and unable to be taken to hospital immediately. Two weeks later, a 4-month-old girl died in a hotel quarantine in the central city of Zhengzhou after a 12-hour delay in medical care.

Many more families like Zhou’s have likely suffered similar tragedies outside of the social media spotlight.

Zhou said he contacted several state media in Beijing to report his story, but no reporters came. Amid growing desperation and anger, he turned to foreign media – despite knowing the risk of government repercussions. CNN is using his last name only to mitigate that risk.

“I just want to get justice for my father. Why did you close us down? Why did you take my father’s life?” he said.

Workers erect metal barriers outside a gated community in Beijing on November 24.

Across China, anger and frustration over zero Covid has reached new heights, leading to rare protests as local authorities rush to re-impose restrictions amid record infections – despite the government’s recent announcement of a limited relaxation of some rules.

Last week, in the southern city of Guangzhou, some residents rebelled against the extended lockdown by tearing down barriers and marching through the streets.

In the central city of Zhengzhou this week, workers at the world’s largest iPhone assembly factory clashed with hazmat-wearing security officers over delayed bonus payments and chaotic Covid rules.

And on Thursday in the sprawling metropolis of Chongqing in the southwest of the population delivered a fiery speech criticized the Covid lockdown in his residential complex. “I’d rather die without freedom!” he shouted to the cheering crowd, who hailed him as a “hero” and wrestled him from the grip of several police officers who tried to take him away.

The acts of defiance echoed an outpouring of discontent online, particularly from Chinese soccer fans — many of whom are under some form of lockdown or restrictions — who could only watch from home as tens of thousands of boisterous fans packed stadiums for the World Cup in Qatar. .

“None of the fans are seen wearing masks or asked to provide proof of Covid test results. Don’t they live on the same planet as us?” asked a Wechat article questioning China’s insistence on zero Covid that went viral before being censored.

There are signs that Chinese officials are feeling the heat from growing public discontent, which has added to the heavy social and economic consequences of the expanding lockdowns.

Earlier this month, the Chinese government issued a 20-point directive to curb the disruption of Covid-free rules in daily life and the economy. It shortened the quarantine from 10 to eight days for close contacts with infected people and for incoming travelers. It also lifted quarantine requirements for secondary contacts, discouraged unnecessary mass test drives and lifted major restrictions on international flights.

The announcement raised hopes of a turnaround toward reopening, sparking a rally in Chinese stocks. But a surge in infections as China heads into its fourth winter of the pandemic is quickly dampening those hopes. On Friday, the country reported a record 32,695 local cases as infections surpassed the previous high set in April during Shanghai’s months-long lockdown for the second straight day.

Covid workers wearing hazmat suits help delivery drivers drop off goods for residents under lockdown in Beijing on November 24.

Instead of relaxing controls, many local officials are reverting to the zero-tolerance playbook and trying to contain infections once they flare up.

Some of the cities that dropped mass testing requirements after the announcement are already tightening further Covid restrictions.

The northern city of Shijiazhuang was among the first to cancel mass testing. It also allowed students to return to schools after a long period of online learning. But as the number of cases surged over the weekend, authorities reimposed a lockdown on Monday and told residents to stay home.

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The video captures the harsh reality of China’s zero-Covid strategy

On Tuesday, the financial center of Shanghai banned anyone arriving in the city from places such as shopping malls, restaurants, supermarkets and gyms for five days. The authorities also closed cultural and entertainment venues in half of the city.

In Guangzhou, officials this week extended the lockdown of Haizhu district – where the protest took place – for the fifth time and closed its most populous district, Baiyun.

Zhengzhou, home of the Foxconn factory where workers clashed with police, imposed a five-day lockdown on its main urban areas.

People ride bicycles on an empty street near Beijing's central business district on November 24.

In Beijing, streets in its largest district, Chaoyang, are largely empty as authorities have urged residents to stay at home and ordered businesses to close. Schools in several districts also switched to online classes this week.

Low vaccination coverage among China’s elderly has led to fears that easing restrictions could overwhelm the country’s health system. As of Nov. 11, about two-thirds of people age 80 and older had received two doses, and only 40% had received a booster dose.

Yanzhong Huang, senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations, said the re-tightening of Covid controls reflects a typical public policy dilemma in China: “If you loosen policy, there will be chaos; but if you harden it will be stuffy.’

Huang said he does not expect any major changes in the zero-Covid policy in the short term. “Because the incentive structure of local governments has not changed. They are still responsible for the Covid situation in their jurisdiction,” he said.

For their part, Chinese officials have repeatedly denied that the 20 measures outlined in the government’s guidelines were intended as the key to living with the virus.

The measures are related to the “optimization” of existing Covid prevention and control policies, Shen Hongbing, a disease control official, told a news conference last week. “It’s not about relaxing (controls), let alone reopening or ‘laying down,'” he said.

On the outskirts of Beijing, Zhou said that while the zero-Covid policy “is beneficial to the majority”, its implementation at the local level was too draconian.

“I don’t want things like this to happen again in China and anywhere in the world,” he said. “I lost my father. My son lost his beloved grandfather. Now I’m angry.”

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