Can China Maintain Its Zero-COVID Policy?
Despite extremely low case numbers, lockdowns are becoming increasingly disruptive.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s China Brief.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s China Brief.
The highlights this week: China’s pandemic restrictions are getting more disruptive, a tennis player makes the first #MeToo accusations against a high-ranking government official, and the U.S. Department of Defense issues a key report on the Chinese military.
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How Long Can China’s Lockdowns Last?
The entire Shanghai Disney Resort shut down last Sunday after a single weekend visitor tested positive for COVID-19, with 34,000 people unable to leave until they were tested and isolated. Teams in protective suits sprayed down rides and administered tests under the lights of Shanghai Disneyland’s castle—a microcosm of the lockdowns occurring across China as the country struggles to manage a small but persistent delta variant outbreak.
So far, there are just around 500 delta cases in China, and strict measures are generally still considered necessary to maintain the country’s largely successful policy of pursuing zero COVID-19 cases. Anticipating more controls following a possible spike in winter cases, the government has asked the public to make sure their homes are stocked with supplies. But pandemic fatigue is also setting in, which could lead to weakening compliance with the rules.
Tourist locations are particularly likely to see restrictions because of the high volume of visitors, but the government has also instituted a ring of control around Beijing, and flights have been canceled. Even in a country with a very high vaccination rate, a serious COVID-19 outbreak in the capital would be a political disaster. A major political meeting, the Chinese Communist Party’s Sixth Plenum, takes place next week. Shijiazhuang, a major rail gateway to Beijing, is under emergency status, with entry and exit controlled.
Meanwhile, Beijing’s protocols are in overdrive, with quarantine often mandated for even remote contacts of positive COVID-19 cases. For example, a visit to a restaurant by someone who later tests positive can mean not only quarantine for the other diners and staff but also for anyone who was there in subsequent days. False positives further complicate matters: Although the diagnostic tests are reliable, China is administering them on a vast scale that inevitably produces many false positives, as actual cases are very rare.
China’s COVID-19 control systems are more localized than one might expect, which creates friction. Although top officials set priorities and norms, cities have instituted their own separate rules, use different versions of the health apps that display their testing and vaccination status, and often have problems sharing individual data with one other. Someone traveling or even moving between cities may experience difficulties transferring their information that take days or weeks to fix.
The restrictions are slowing down China’s ports, but they are also contributing to domestic supply chain problems. The movement of goods is dependent on the now-restrained movement of truck drivers, who have been a public health focus due to their role in spreading epidemics in the past. It doesn’t help that they have little lobbying power: 90 percent of trucks are individually owned, and the pandemic hit the industry hard. Low fuel prices last year provided some compensation, but diesel fuel is now being rationed amid shortages.
These bureaucratic hiccups are not new, but the pandemic regime has made them more immediate and more frustrating, such as for someone banned from public spaces because they lack the correct health code. It’s even trickier for foreigners, as accounts from longtime residents suggest. Passports are supposed to substitute for ID cards and other local paperwork in such cases, but they’ve never slotted into Chinese bureaucracy easily.
In the long term, the pandemic restrictions contribute to the general strengthening of the Chinese state. China was uniquely set up to handle the coronavirus—after its initial cover-ups let it spread in the first place. The machinery of surveillance put in place over decades for political control, from cameras to requiring ID to buy train tickets and SIM cards, was easily adapted for pandemic control.
That pandemic control in turn has emboldened the machinery of political repression and normalized controls on movement. Now justified in using that tool set, officials will employ it toward worse ends than eliminating COVID-19.
What We’re Following
#MeToo case hits former official. In a Weibo post that remained up for only a few minutes, Peng Shuai, a 35-year-old tennis star, accused former Chinese Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli, 75, of sexual assault. Censors deleted the post. Peng said that she began a sexual relationship with Zhang 10 years ago, when he was the party chief of Tianjin, and that he then abandoned her in 2013 when he became vice premier, a post he held until 2018. Peng said he sexually assaulted her three years ago. “I never consented that afternoon, but cried all the time,” she wrote.
China’s #MeToo movement has grown in recent years, despite the government’s efforts to suppress it and the failure of key legal cases. But Peng’s accusation is the first made publicly against a high-ranking official. The news has spread rapidly on the Chinese internet, even as numerous terms that could hint at the names involved are now blocked.
Although Zhang is unlikely to face legal consequences, the post may become fodder for his political enemies: Even retired officials are often caught up in power struggles. It’s not clear where Peng currently is. Her post, which mentions arranging to meet with Zhang on Nov. 2, suggests that she is in Beijing, but there are rumors on Chinese diaspora social media that she is in Los Angeles. If she is in China, she is probably now detained.
Rumors about movie and sports stars entering into extramarital relationships with high-ranking officials in exchange for financial support and proximity to power are common. The Central Academy of Drama and other arts schools in Beijing are particularly infamous as hunting grounds for the rich and powerful. Although many of these relationships are consensual, some constitute sexual predation—unsurprising in a patriarchal system with little accountability.
U.S. issues China military report. The U.S. Department of Defense issued a key report on the Chinese military on Wednesday, with a particular focus on the ambitious expansion of China’s nuclear stockpile. The United States says China is planning to quadruple the size of its current arsenal by 2030, and satellite imagery shows new silos under construction. That makes the world a more dangerous place, especially given that Beijing has little appetite for disarmament talks.
Yet without dismissing Chinese military buildup—which threatens Taiwan and other neighbors—it’s worth remembering that even outside estimates of China’s military budget put it at one-third of the U.S. budget. Every part of the U.S. military is already putting forward Chinese growth as the excuse for why it should get more money. That risks obscuring the actual threat.
Taiwan rumors. The Chinese government is attempting to quash rumors that an invasion of Taiwan is imminent, sparked by the recent requests to the public to stockpile food and by increased foreign media attention to threats against Taiwan. But the disturbing part of the rumors is the volume of posts that take pleasure in the thought of seizing Taiwanese wealth or homes. Once seen as lost comrades, Taiwanese are increasingly portrayed as a separatist minority who must be crushed, much like Hong Kongers.
Tech and Business
Winter is coming. What looks to be a particularly bleak winter marked by early cold snaps has prompted local governments to turn on heating systems relatively early. Most heating in China is centralized and only turned on after an official date—usually around Nov. 15—and turned off on March 15. That often leaves residents shivering in October and early November, turning to small electric heaters or coal stoves. This year, to keep emissions down, the government has also confiscated private coal supplies.
But there is also a national divide in who gets heating at all. Only provinces north of a line that splits the middle of the country, running along the Huai River and the Qin Mountains, have mandated central heating. Although a few high-end residences have it in the south, most others resort to blankets and hot water bottles. That means that some of China’s worst winter disasters have occurred in its normally warm regions, similar to the cold snap that devastated Texas in February.
Yahoo exits China. Yahoo has become the second technology company to exit China in as many months, following on the heels of LinkedIn. Yahoo was once a popular alternative to Google in China, but that changed as the Great Firewall tightened. The company’s email service was shut down years ago, and it had gotten into trouble for handing over confidential information to the Chinese government in 2005 that resulted in the arrest of reporters.
There are not that many Western tech firms left in China. The real test will be if Bloomberg, which has made considerable concessions to the authorities to keep its terminal business operational, pulls out.
Manufacturing falls again. Chinese manufacturing output has contracted for a second consecutive month as the sector continues to struggle with energy shortages and supply chain problems. The energy problems may be partially alleviated as the government forces more coal power online, but electricity remains expensive, and petrol costs are also rising. However, smaller companies seem to be coping somewhat better, according to data from Caixin.
James Palmer is a deputy editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @BeijingPalmer
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