Outcry over Xi'an lockdown tests limits of China's zero-Covid policy

A staff member of a drug store rides a bicycle to deliver medicine in Xi'an, northwest China, Dec. 31, 2021.

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Hong Kong (CNN)For residents in China's northwestern city of Xi'an, the start of 2022 is looking a lot like 2020 -- only worse.

Since December, the ancient city known as the home of the Terracotta Warriors has been grappling with China's largest community coronavirus outbreak since Wuhan, the original epicenter of the pandemic.
To date, more than 1,600 cases have been reported in the city. While the number pales in comparison to those in many other countries, the outbreak pushed China's caseload in the final week of 2021 to the highest level since March 2020.
    For 12 days and counting, Xi'an's 13 million residents have been confined to their homes. The city, formerly a tourist hotspot, welcomed the new year with deserted streets, shuttered stores, sealed-off residential compounds and an empty airport.
      The lockdown is the strictest and largest since Wuhan, which sealed off 11 million people in early 2020.
      But it is also among the most chaotic, leaving residents short of food and other essential supplies and affecting access to medical services.
      A groundswell of anger and frustration at the local government has ensued, underscoring the growing challenge facing China's zero-Covid policy, which relies on a playbook of mass testing, extensive quarantines and snap lockdowns to stamp out any resurgence of the virus.
        For almost two years, these stringent measures have shielded the majority of the country from the worst aspects of the pandemic, winning overwhelming public support. But as local outbreaks continue to flare up, the outcry in Xi'an raises the question of just how long zero-Covid can be sustained before public support begins to taper off, with millions of residents trapped in an seemingly endless cycle of lockdowns.
        Over the past week, Chinese social media was inundated with cries for help and criticism over perceived incompetence of the local Xi'an government. Residents flooded a livestream of a government Covid news conference with demands for groceries -- prompting embarrassed officials to disable all comments.
        Despite some censorship, the issue has continued to gain traction. On Weibo, China's Twitter-like platform, the hashtag "Grocery shopping in Xi'an is difficult" has been viewed 380 million times as of Monday.
        Many expressed frustration they hadn't hoarded food in advance because local authorities had repeatedly reassured them food supplies were abundant and there was no need for panic buying.
        In the first few days of the lockdown, each household was allowed to send one designated person out to buy groceries every two days. But as cases continued to rise, Xi'an further tightened lockdown measures, requiring all residents to stay at home unless permitted to go outside for mass testing.
        "Previously I thought those panic buying folks were stupid. Now I've realized I am the stupid one," said a comment on Weibo.
        Faced with the public outcry, local officials pledged steady deliveries of groceries to residents, with state media carrying footage of food arriving at residential compounds. While the supply shortage was eased in some neighborhoods, other residents complained on social media -- including in comments below state media posts -- that they had not received such deliveries in their communities.
        Meanwhile, the heavy-handed approach adopted in some areas to enforce the lockdown has fueled further outrage.
        On Friday, footage emerged on Weibo of a man being beaten by Covid prevention workers at the gates of a residential compound when he tried to enter with a bag of steamed buns. The video, which immediately went viral, showed the buns scattered on the ground as the man tumbled. The ensuing outcry prompted a