At All Costs: The Price of China’s Zero Covid Policy

Before the coronavirus, the Chinese New Year was considered to be one of the largest annual migrations of humans in the world. From workplaces around the nation and globe, 300 million Chinese workers journey back home for the holiday, hoping to spend some precious time with their family and loved ones. Yet for many, this year’s Chinese New Year will be spent in lockdown, under the threat that they may never be able to return to work if they go back home. 

When the coronavirus emerged in the city of Wuhan in December 2019, China was the first country to experience the havoc that the virus brought to its people. Yet, it was also the first to almost completely quash it out. Adopting a “Zero-COVID” policy in the wake of the outbreak, China launched a no-holds-barred approach to the virus, enacting harsh restrictions, testing, and contact tracing procedures on its citizens. The approach has worked remarkably well for public health, with the country reporting less than 5,000 deaths since the beginning of the pandemic. The policy has also made China an anomaly: as countries open and reclose, choosing to combat the virus in a less restrictive manner, China remains shut, still focused on fully eradicating the virus. 

“Defend externally against importation, defend internally against rebound,’” stated Mi Feng, a spokesman for the National Health Commission, in October 2021. “The current control measures cannot be relaxed.” This policy, along with the low number of deaths of the Chinese people, have become a source of national pride within Chinese borders. Voices against the strategy are scorned both government officials and the public alike. Yet, as China places the city of Xi’an and its 13 million over residents in lockdown following a few hundred reported cases, the unavoidable impacts of its harsh treatments and underhanded intentions have slowly begun to rear their ugly heads.

Buildings locked up. Forty-five thousand people in quarantine facilities. Across the whole city, the lockdown rules are strictly followed and even more strictly enforced. No exceptions are made, no matter the cost. In December 2021, a woman who was eight months pregnant was barred at the hospital door because her COVID-19 test results were deemed invalid. She would go on to lose her baby. In January 2022, hospital employees in Xi’an refused to admit a man who had chest pains because he resided in a medium risk district. He later died of a heart attack. China’s “zero tolerance” COVID-19 policies have saved infection numbers—but at the cost of human lives. 

The political considerations underpinning this zero-tolerance policy are glaring. The actions of the Chinese government, couched in the rhetoric of genuine concern for its nation and people, have also proven a bid to further solidify the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). As China hosts the 2022 Winter Olympics, President Xi Jinping prepares for an unprecedented third five-year term, and the CCP executes sweeping business and cultural reform, the government’s hold on media, society, and its borders and businesses may be critical for the nation’s short-term stability. 

Even as China is nearing its 85% vaccination mark and the Chinese economic losses from the lockdowns grow increasingly dire, the government shows no intent on loosening its hold. Borders remain closed, lockdowns in place, struggles ignored. If China were to continue this further action, approval ratings towards the efficient and powerful one party system prided by both government officials and its citizens alike may take a turn for the worse. “This rigidness at the top — you could call that effectiveness of the autocratic system,” says Xiao Qiang, an expert on China’s censorship and propaganda apparatus at UC Berkeley, “is becoming the weakness of the autocratic system.”

By: Raymond Ge

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