China Brief

A weekly digest of the stories you should be following in China, plus exclusive analysis. Delivered Wednesday.

Can China Lock Down Again?

The city of Xian illustrates the challenges of the zero-COVID-19 strategy in the omicron era.

Palmer-James-foreign-policy-columnist20
Palmer-James-foreign-policy-columnist20
James Palmer
By , a deputy editor at Foreign Policy.
A sanitation worker sweeps a deserted road in Xian, China, on Dec. 28, 2021.
A sanitation worker sweeps a deserted road in Xian, China, on Dec. 28, 2021.
A sanitation worker sweeps a deserted road in Xian, China, on Dec. 28, 2021. STR/AFP via Getty Images

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s China Brief.

The highlights this week: A total lockdown in Xian starts to strain the population, anti-government protests erupt in neighboring Kazakhstan, and Beijing’s air quality meets nationwide standards for the first time.

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Welcome to Foreign Policy’s China Brief.

The highlights this week: A total lockdown in Xian starts to strain the population, anti-government protests erupt in neighboring Kazakhstan, and Beijing’s air quality meets nationwide standards for the first time.

If you would like to receive China Brief in your inbox every Wednesday, please sign up here.


Inside Xian’s Lockdown

On Wednesday, the 13 million people of Xian, China’s ancient capital, entered their 14th day of lockdown. The city imposed tight controls on Dec. 23, 2021, amid China’s worst COVID-19 outbreak since 2020. Apart from a small number of essential workers, residents can only leave their homes for very limited grocery runs.

Around 1,800 people with confirmed symptomatic COVID-19 cases are in centralized quarantine; as of Saturday, so were over 42,000 close contacts. It is not yet confirmed if any of the cases are the omicron variant, but given the speed of the outbreak, it seems possible.

Pandemic lockdowns have proved especially effective in China for several reasons. Most urban Chinese live in walled compounds with large apartment buildings, with controllable entry and exit points. Rural villages often have only a single road out. Even before 2020, the state had implemented surveillance infrastructure for political control, using technology ranging from simple cameras to facial recognition.

Chinese cities rely on many people to implement lockdowns, including police, chengguan (security personnel who enforce regulations, often harassing street vendors), and residents’ committees. China has also imposed centralized quarantine measures, in which COVID-19 patients and those exposed to the virus stay in mandated facilities. Centralized quarantine was a vital part of the success of the 2020 lockdown, significantly reducing household spread.

The scale of the lockdown in Xian has caused significant problems, resulting in small but angry outcries from locals popping up online—usually centered around groceries. Many stories from Xian resemble those from the first weeks of lockdowns in January and February 2020.

Food is a key issue. One household member is usually allowed to make a grocery run every two days, but most stores are closed, and those that are open are understocked. The government has started supplying vegetables to compounds, where local committees distribute them to residents, especially the elderly. It helps that many households stocked up on supplies this past November after the central government warned that winter lockdowns were likely.

The worst shortages seem to be in the central district of Yanta, a wealthy and densely populated area that was put in localized lockdown on Dec. 17 and briefly reopened before the citywide shutdown. Two senior Yanta officials have been fired; Christian Goebel, an expert on Chinese local government, points out that this follows a pattern of the central government scapegoating locals for failures. The Xian government will likely see more firings—and possibly prosecutions—as it pays the cost of public failure.

Xian’s health care system is also under strain—not from coronavirus cases, but from the pressure of mass testing and bureaucratic requirements. The Chinese hospital system is tiered: The most qualified doctors and nurses work in central, rich hospitals, and less qualified ones work in outlying hospitals and community centers. Most top-tier personnel in Xian are supervising the city’s mass testing, leaving less-qualified personnel struggling to fill the gaps.

On top of that, hospitals in the city are demanding a negative COVID-19 test before seeing patients, which has already resulted in incidents such as a pregnant woman miscarrying, a heart attack victim dying for lack of treatment, and injured children waiting over a day to see a doctor.

New COVID-19 case numbers in Xian are now falling sharply, but that’s attracted some public skepticism, since the local government had cited Jan. 4 as the date that numbers were set to fall thanks to successful measures. Rumors have spread on Chinese social media that the city was sending sick people, especially students, to neighboring quarantine centers to exclude them from the official case count.

Xian is a major chip manufacturing center, and some companies have warned that the lockdown could contribute to existing shortages. It’s not yet clear how the city will support affected businesses. In 2020, a mixture of loans, increased welfare payments, and central government aid to local governments helped cities weather the economic storm. Xian’s financial future likely depends on how willing Beijing is to loosen its purse strings.

Other big lockdowns may well follow Xian’s. As the omicron variant tests the walls of China’s quarantine, other restrictions seem likely, especially in areas relatively close to Beijing. Yuzhou, a city of 1.1 million people a few hundred miles from Beijing, just became the second city to enter total lockdown.


What We’re Following

Kazakhstan erupts in protest. China’s neighbor Kazakhstan is currently consumed by mass protests initially triggered by increasing gas prices that have become a general anti-government movement. Kazakhstan’s president, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, promised “tough action” against protesters, who have called for an end to the de facto rule of longtime autocrat Nursultan Nazarbayev and his cronies. Nazarbayev stepped down as president in 2019 but continues to wield significant power.

As of writing, events were moving fast, with government buildings aflame and the Almaty airport seized by protesters. Beijing has issued no official comment, save for routine diplomatic flattery for an anniversary on Jan. 3. But China has deep ties to Kazakhstan’s autocratic elite, especially through the energy and mining industries. Kazakhstan is a major part of one of the key Belt and Road Initiative routes.

Many Kazakhs view the Belt and Road as another vehicle for the elite to launder their stolen money and worry that China harbors territorial ambitions in Kazakhstan. Beijing is hostile toward revolutions against its autocratic allies, routinely demonizing the ‘color revolutions’ of post-Soviet states. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a Chinese-led group of which Kazakhstan is a member, has conducted several “anti-terrorism” military exercises that double as practice for aiding members in suppressing a popular revolt.

That’s a worse-case scenario, not least because inviting in Chinese security forces would be massively unpopular in Kazakhstan. But it’s not an impossible one—especially since the president has just asked for military aid from Russia and its allies.

Beijingers can breathe. China’s capital met the country’s clear air standards for the first time ever in 2021. Beijing’s air quality improvements have made a major difference to quality of life in the city in the last five years. China’s air quality index standards are less rigorous than the U.S. ones, but there’s still been clear improvement every year since 2014, with serious and measurable results. (The difference between the winter of 2016, when I didn’t see the sun for a month, and the cold, clear winter of 2017 is very vivid in my memory.)

That said, Beijing still has a smog problem somewhat worse than that of Los Angeles, and it faces several very bad days for air quality each year. But compared to a city like New Delhi, it looks positively utopian. The rest of northern China is not doing as well, despite improvements brought on by the 2020 lockdowns, in part because economic slowdown has prompted local governments to allow polluting projects to resume to boost jobs and GDP.

Smog reduction efforts around the Beijing Olympics may make this a relatively clean winter, however.

Ningbo lockdown. The port of Ningbo, a major Chinese shipping hub, is under partial lockdown again thanks to a coronavirus outbreak. Only 40 percent of the 20,000 truck drivers who usually move in and out of the city now have permission to enter. The restrictions are causing a bigger backlog of ships than the previous lockdown in August 2021, in part because the outbreak—of just 23 cases—is in Beilun, one of the busiest areas of the city.

Expect a lot more of these disruptions as the omicron variant hits. China has also tightened restrictions on flights from the United States, which now require more than a week of testing and isolation before departure.


Tech and Business

Algorithm restrictions. Beijing has placed new regulations on the use of algorithms on Chinese apps, especially for recommendations. Many of the new rules are strong consumer protection measures, such as a requirement that users must be able to view and delete keywords used to define their accounts and steps meant to protect the elderly. The move keeps with a general push toward privacy protection in recent years—but only from companies, not from the government.

Beijing has also shown a clear desire to stop algorithms from pushing public opinion in unexpected directions, including a newly added restriction on generating “synthetic fake news.” But the definition of fake news depends on the authorities—making it another tool for crushing dissent. The new rules won’t restrict China’s own global disinformation networks.

Video game shutdowns. Ideological restrictions on video games have led to a bleak winter for the industry in China, with 14,000 companies or studios shutting down since July 2021—compared to 18,000 firms that shut their doors in all of 2020. The new rules include tight limits on video gaming for teenagers—just a couple of fixed hours per week—and injunctions against ethical ambiguity and insufficiently masculine characters.

Most critically, however, China’s regulator hasn’t issued any new video game licenses since last June, shutting off revenue streams and ruining existing projects that are now unable to be released. The studios that survive are often doing work for foreign markets.

Ever-rocky Evergrande. As 2022 opens, China’s property market continues to be a mess. China Evergrande Group is in the middle of a slow collapse, with trading of its shares suspended for days after it was ordered to destroy an existing construction project on the southern resort island of Hainan. The company is still trying to strike deals with debt holders.

But hopes that China will tackle its overinflated property market through regulation are fading as local governments dependent on real estate sales instead try to prop up a failing industry. The public is not optimistic, with a majority expecting flat or falling prices.

James Palmer is a deputy editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @BeijingPalmer

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