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As harrowing stories continue to emerge from within the locked-down city of Xi’an, a wave of disbelief has washed over the Chinese public: why are such tragedies still unfolding two years into the pandemic, in a major metropolis of 13 million people?
Xi’an was placed under strict lockdown orders on December 23 in a drastic bid to contain the spread of a fast-growing Covid cluster. But in the days and weeks since, a steady stream of complaints about food shortages, as well as heartbreaking scenes of critical patients – including heavily pregnant women – being denied medical care have shocked the nation.
Many were reminded of the traumatic early days of the pandemic in Wuhan, the original epicenter where 11 million residents were confined to their homes for months in 2020.
Back then, Wuhan was blighted by extreme shortages in medical resources and soaring food prices, but the chaos and frustration eventually ended – and the outbreak brought under control.
China has since relied on a combination of mass testing, snap lockdowns and extensive quarantine measures to stamp out renewed flare-ups. This zero-Covid strategy has successfully protected the country against the worst of the pandemic, potentially saving millions of lives and winning overwhelming public support.
To date, China has only officially reported 4,636 Covid related deaths, compared with 829,740 in the United States and 173,248 in the United Kingdom. (Though some scientists have pointed out the differences in methodology adopted by each country to count Covid deaths.)
The ruling Communist Party has held up that success as proof its one-party, authoritarian political model is superior to Western democracies, which have struggled to control their outbreaks.
But by the same token, the tragedies unfolding in Xi’an also stem from the same top-down political system, which demands absolute loyalty, brooks no dissent and places the interests of the whole far above the rights of individuals.
With Beijing bent on achieving its zero-Covid goal, local officials often pledge to do “whatever it costs” to return cases to zero – causing great disruption to daily life and at times even harming those they are supposed to protect.
“No one cares what you die of – other than Covid-19,” a user wrote on Chinese social media this week.
Yanzhong Huang, senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations, describes the phenomenon as “toxic politics.”
“Over the past decades, public policy process – in terms of agenda setting, policy formulation and implementation – in China has continued to be top-down, non-participatory, impromptu and mobilizational,” he said.
“That has facilitated the local leaders to impose those policy measures to society, which essentially is not in a position to negotiate with the state in policy-making and implementation.”
In a way, Xi’an’s dysfunction is not an exception. Complaints of disproportionately harsh measures abound during previous prolonged lockdowns in other comparatively smaller areas, from cities in the western region of Xinjiang to the southern border town of Ruili. But in Xi’an, such problems took place in a much more extreme form, on a much larger scale, and garnered much wider attention.
“People like to use Shanghai as a sort of reference point,” Huang said, referring to the Chinese financial center widely praised for its cool-headed and targeted Covid response. “But they forgot that Shanghai is actually a rare case due to its relatively strong bureaucratic capacity.”
“When the capacity is low, government officials are more likely to turn to heavy-handed, indiscriminate and even excessive measures that significantly raise the cost of implementing this (zero-Covid) strategy,” he said, citing Xi’an as an example.
Over the past week, Xi’an authorities have faced a public outcry over draconian lockdown measures that prevented critical patients from urgent medical care. A heavily pregnant woman allegedly miscarried on New Year’s Day after being denied entry by a hospital because she didn’t have a valid Covid test. A young woman claimed she lost her father to a heart attack following much-delayed rescue, after they were turned down by hospitals for coming from a “medium-risk area” of the city.
In an interview with state-run news outlet The Paper, the woman who lost her father said she was determined to seek answers.
“The guard said he was doing his job; The nurse said she was doing her job; The hospital said it was doing its job. From the perspective of all the epidemic prevention and control requirements, nobody was at fault. So who does the problem lie with?” she asked.
To quell public fury, the Chinese Communist Party moved quickly to announce a flurry of punishments: hospital managers were suspended or removed from posts, while the city’s key public health officials were issued disciplinary warnings.
At a news conference Thursday, Liu Shunzhi, the head of the Xi’an Municipal Health Commission, bowed and apologized to the woman who lost her child, as well as other patients who had problems accessing medical treatment.
And the upper echelon of the party weighed in too. Sun Chunlan, a Politburo member and vice premier overseeing China’s Covid response, stressed on Thursday that public access to medical services “must not be denied under any excuse.”
“We’re deeply saddened and sorry to see such problems occur, which has exposed the sloppiness in prevention and control work, and the lesson is profound,” Sun was quoted as saying by state media. “The original purpose of epidemic prevention and control is to keep people healthy and safeguard lives.”
In blaming local officials for failing to do their job well, Sun brushed over a deeper root cause that drove Xi’an authorities to such extremes in implementing the lockdown – namely the tremendous political pressure to achieve the central government’s zero-Covid goal.
Across China, hundreds of local officials have been fired or punished for failing to contain Covid flare-ups in their localities. With the Lunar New Year and the Beijing Winter Olympics fast approaching, such pressure has only intensified.
Meanwhile, China’s political system has become even more top-down under President Xi Jinping, who has demanded absolute loyalty from the vast bureaucracy. Local governments are required to always toe the line of the central party leadership and carry out its instructions to the letter. As a result, the room for healthy policy debates and flexibility in implementation has shrunk drastically.
Also rapidly shrinking is China’s press freedom and civil society, which could have potentially alerted a crisis early on. Even during the initial outbreak in Wuhan, some relatively outspoken state media outlets published hard-hitting reports and successfully drew attention to problems on the ground, while citizens across China organized themselves to help those in need. But the space for independent reporting and social organization has been further squeezed over the past two years, as a wave of nationalism engulfs the country.
During previous outbreaks, when voices of criticism against harsh lockdown measures arose online, they were often met with admonishment to “think about the bigger picture,” namely the country’s zero-Covid ambitions.
But since the Xi’an lockdown, more are starting to reflect on the sacrifices individuals are asked to make – and whether they are worth it.
Zhang Wenmin, a former investigative journalist who lives in Xi’an, publicly questioned the official slogan “we must do it at all cost.”
“It may sound all well and good, but when zooming in more specifically on the individual level, as an ordinary person, we might want to ask: are we the ‘we’ here, or are we the ‘cost’ that must be paid?” she asked in a widely shared article recounting her first 10 days in lockdown, written under her pen name Jiang Xue.
“In this world, nobody is an island, the death of any individual is a death of all,” she wrote. “The virus didn’t take any lives in this city, but there is a real possibility that other things did.”