China’s Stringent COVID-19 Measures and Lockdown in Xi’an Sparks Dissatisfaction

On December 22, 2021, Chinese officials locked down Xi’an, a city in Northwestern China with a population of 13 million. Xi’an has become one of the largest cities in the country to be sealed off and has been the longest in lockdown since the original outbreak of COVID-19 and lockdown in Wuhan. The stringent restriction in Xi’an reflects China’s resolve to adhere to its “zero COVID-19” strategy while more countries—many of which with higher numbers of cases than China—are abandoning strict lockdowns in consideration of the immense social and economic costs that accompany these measures. 

Prior to the lockdown in Xi’an, President Xi Jinping declared in a major party meeting that China had “overcome the impact of COVID-19.” Chinese officials have underscored the success and necessity of the country’s authoritarian-styled “zero COVID-19” approach; top epidemiologist Zhong Nanshan further called these measures relatively low-cost both economically and in terms of the psychological effect on the public in comparison to policies of “treatment after infection” and the back-and-forth openings and closings of borders in other countries, who have moved to loosen restrictions as vaccination rates rose. China has ordered businesses to halt importations of frozen foods last November, explaining that imports could transport diseases to China. The central government has also continuously ordered occasional lockdowns in various regions, eager to ensure the Winter Olympics, scheduled to take place in Beijing in February, runs smoothly.

As the country draws closer to the Olympics and the Lunar New Year, however, Chinese vaccines appear less effective than those by Western pharmaceutical brands, especially when dealing with newer variants. When Xi’an reported 1,117 infections—a comparatively low percentage for the city of 13 million when compared with daily case counts in the United States—between December 17 and December 29, thus, officials continued the “zero COVID-19” policy and ordered a lockdown, shutting down schools and businesses as well as banning residents from leaving their homes. Medical experts have attributed the cases to the Delta variant: there has been only a handful of Omicron cases in China in comparison to the current Omicron outbreak in other parts of the world. 

So far, the cases in Xi’an are mild according to officials, and no one has died of the virus. Two weeks into the lockdown, authorities—without lifting the lockdown—announced that Xi’an had won its battle against the virus and attained “zero COVID-19 on a societal level.” 

In addition to the lockdown, officials have ordered daily tests in several districts with nearly 12,000 sampling stations and 160,000 workers. Other workers can be seen conducting a “full-scale” deep cleaning of the city, instructing residents to close their windows and spraying the streets of the city with disinfectants. 

Life in lockdown for Xi’an residents, yet, is much grimmer than the authorities claimed. Thousands of people have been transferred to isolation facilities to quarantine. Several municipal top officials have been fired, while the head of Xi’an’s big data bureau suspended amidst the crashing of the digital case tracking system. On Chinese social media platform Weibo, residents have complained of difficulties with ordering food online, showing pictures of trading cigarettes for food. The hashtag “Grocery shopping in Xi’an is hard” reached 300 million views before censors deleted posts. Though authorities later acknowledged the blunder and responded with posts showing volunteers delivering groceries, many have complained that the country has prioritized combatting the virus over the well-being of its citizens. Nationwide anger spread after the account of a woman who lost her unborn baby eight months into pregnancy after being denied medical attention for hours, allegedly because her most recent COVID-19 test result had been a few hours too old. In general, only a limited number of hospitals in the city have been receiving non-COVID-19 patients. Now, other accounts of family members dying of non-COVID-19 medical causes due to the lack of medical support circulate on Weibo. Since public outcry about the stillbirth, head of the city’s health commission, Liu Shunzi has issued an apology regarding the incident as well as more general problems experienced in lockdown; Sun Chunlan, a vice premier overseeing central government’s COVID-19 procedures, ordered local officials to prevent further similar deadly delays in medical treatment.  

“The death of any individual is a death of all,” wrote Zhang Wenming, a former investigative journalist living in Xi’an, in an account of her experience in lockdown. While China has weighed heavily upon its success to contain COVID-19 since the initial outbreak as evidence of the necessity of its authoritarian-styled strategy, the pain experienced by Xi’an residents and broader confusion about China’s public health policies have increasingly sparked dissatisfaction and casted doubts on the supportability of China’s stringent “zero COVID-19” measures.