China Brief

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

Shanghai Enters Full Lockdown

The announcement has sparked panic-buying and confusion throughout the city, where centralized quarantine facilities are already overloaded.

Palmer-James-foreign-policy-columnist20
Palmer-James-foreign-policy-columnist20
James Palmer
By , a deputy editor at Foreign Policy.
A worker wearing a protective gear walks next to barriers that separate a neighborhood under lockdown from the street in Shanghai on March 30.
A worker wearing a protective gear walks next to barriers that separate a neighborhood under lockdown from the street in Shanghai on March 30.
A worker wearing a protective gear walks next to barriers that separate a neighborhood under lockdown from the street in Shanghai on March 30. HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP via Getty Images

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s China Brief.

The highlights this week: Shanghai prepares for a full COVID-19 lockdown after weeks of partial closures, why China is blaming the United States for the war in Ukraine, and the NBA makes its long-awaited return to Chinese television.

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

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s China Brief.

The highlights this week: Shanghai prepares for a full COVID-19 lockdown after weeks of partial closures, why China is blaming the United States for the war in Ukraine, and the NBA makes its long-awaited return to Chinese television.

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


Shanghai’s Confused Lockdown

After weeks of partial closures, Shanghai now faces full lockdown—in two parts. Each side of the city, which is divided by the Huangpu River, will undergo five days of near-total lockdown; the eastern district of Pudong started Monday, while Puxi’s lockdown begins Friday. Many of its residents have already seen days or weeks of lockdown after cases were detected in their residential compounds, where most urban Chinese live.

Authorities will use the time to conduct mass testing, identifying and isolating COVID-19 cases. Even after this lockdown nominally ends next week, many parts of Shanghai are likely to remain shut down due to detected cases. The limited use of robots to announce safety measures in a few areas made headlines this week, but the majority of the work continues to be done by public health officials working with ubiquitous residents’ committees, which maintain a close watch over their neighbors.

The decision to enter full lockdown, announced Sunday evening, sparked widespread panic-buying in the city, as well as confusion and anger online. Residents also expressed fear about being forced into centralized quarantine, where facilities are overloaded. Many Chinese households have kept food stocks since the winter, when government warnings and fears about the omicron variant prompted shopping sprees. Shanghai’s health care system is stretched thin, with many clinics closed; the death of a nurse from treatable asthma made headlines.

Older Shanghai residents are experiencing particular difficulty coping with the lockdowns. Residential committees are supposed to distribute food and aid, but amid the confusion and suddenness of the lockdown, some older people have been overlooked. A video of an older man struggling with being told to use the popular messaging app WeChat to buy food went viral.

On Tuesday, Shanghai recorded 326 serious COVID-19 cases, along with 5,656 so-called asymptomatic cases, a term that in China includes mild cases that don’t require hospitalization. However, in the rest of the country, serious cases exceeded the asymptomatic ones, suggesting a large mass of undetected cases. Eliminating the omicron variant domestically now seems extremely unlikely; the speed of its spread and the difficulties in detecting mild cases mean that outbreaks are likely to be a recurring problem for any zero-COVID strategy.

In what may be a sign of a shift, Shanghai’s government mentioned it would “support the import of new coronavirus vaccines,” prompting a stock bump for Fosun Pharma, whose deal to sell the Pfizer vaccine in mainland China has faced political obstacles. China has so far relied only on its domestic vaccines while backing disinformation about more effective mRNA vaccines.

However, it may be difficult to begin promoting imported vaccines to the Chinese public, especially because fears of side effects are common among older Chinese, who remain the least vaccinated part of the population.

As things stand, conservative estimates suggest that lockdowns are costing the Chinese economy $46 billion per month in economic output. That figure could increase sharply if the measures get more restrictive, especially in economically critical metropolises such as Shanghai.


What We’re Following

China faults United States for Ukraine crisis. A slate of new state media articles in core outlets such as Xinhua and the People’s Daily have reemphasized China’s position that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is entirely the fault of the United States. In this telling, the United States provoked Russia through NATO expansion, conducted a coup in 2014, and is prolonging the conflict for its own unspecified ends. China has villainized NATO for decades, especially since the bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Yugoslavia in 1999.

Blaming Washington is the norm in Chinese media; this approach accords with media instructions to avoid both anti-Ukraine and anti-Russia content while backing Russian President Vladimir Putin’s narratives around the war. Pro-Ukrainian content is still heavily censored in China; one Chinese blogger in Ukraine regularly has been called a traitor online for depicting the war accurately.

But Beijing also seems to think that blaming the United States offers an opportunity to separate it from the European Union, which represents a misunderstanding of how European states approach both the war and Russia. Despite its repeated warnings against a “Cold War mentality,” Beijing is given to treating smaller states as puppets of larger ones. China’s attempted outreach to the EU, especially to Germany, is likely to fail if this is the thinking steering it.

Marriages plummet. The number of people getting married for the first time in China plummeted in 2020, dropping to just 12.28 million. The figure has fallen continuously since the peak of 23.85 million in 2013—a big concern because marriages are closely tied to the birth rate, which has also been declining steadily for years and is now probably beneath the population replacement rate, despite the government’s best efforts to boost it.

The massive cost of child-rearing in China is a major factor driving declining birth rates: Per capita, it is much higher than even in the United States or Japan. Changes in family planning policy have proved ineffective at stalling the decline, while efforts at improving services for young parents have been derailed by COVID-19 outbreaks and diverted resources.

Anecdotally, the destruction of private education services last year doesn’t seem to have reduced costs for parents, with the Beijing and Shanghai middle classes at least turning to even more expensive under-the-radar private tuition.

International scholarship restrained. Chinese academics face threats from the police after participating in online seminars run by the Association for Asian Studies and were in some cases forced to withdraw. The restrictions are part of increased controls on any participation in foreign events, which have required university approval for academics since 2016—a rule now applied extensively to online events.

Even when permission is granted, some academics have had to report their time spent abroad on an hour-by-hour basis to the authorities. Chinese-U.S. academic cooperation increased throughout the 2000s, but it is now badly hamstrung by politics, with exchanges and scholarships on both sides canceled and access to Chinese archives increasingly difficult for researchers.


Tech and Business

NBA back on Chinese TV. After more than two years of tensions between Beijing and the NBA over the basketball association’s refusal to censor or punish athletes and coaches for comments about human rights in China, the relationship seems to be easing. Chinese television screened an NBA game for the first time since 2020, ending an 18-month blackout—itself preceded by a nine-month blackout after Daryl Morey, then general manager of the Houston Rockets, tweeted in support of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests.

In a recent New York Times interview, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said it was “very difficult for the league to practice foreign policy” and that the NBA shouldn’t be forced to boycott China when other U.S. firms do business with it—echoing more than two years of lobbying by the NBA in both Beijing and Washington.

Two years appears to be about the usual time for foreign companies to stay in Beijing’s doghouse. Although some commenters remain angry that the NBA hasn’t shown sufficient contrition, most Chinese fans seem pleased at the prospect of having games back on their screens.

Housing crumbles even as credit eases. Figures released Monday showed a 49.1 percent decline in Chinese real estate sales compared with last March, continuing sharp declines. Despite city authorities rapidly rolling back credit limitations and bans of land sales and dropping property tax plans, the real estate sector remains in crisis. Official figures maintain that housing prices are stable or increasing, but that doesn’t match reports from the sector of deep discounts, crashing sales, and falling prices.

China may be approaching the dangerous stage where the need for a political success in supposedly stabilizing the sector causes officials to neglect the extent of the crisis. China’s National Bureau of Statistics seems to have its own concerns about recent figures, calling for emergency audits. Foreign auditors, meanwhile, are applying a new skepticism to Chinese firms’ figures.

Investors fear China sanctions. International investors pulled more than $3 billion out of Chinese equities last week, while Chinese stocks saw another round of sell-offs. The chief cause seems to be concerns that sanctions could be extended to Chinese firms if they offer material support to Russia. Chinese firms have backed away from Russia in the wake of its invasion of Ukraine, but pro-Putin and anti-U.S. national messaging and U.S. leaks on Chinese support for Putin have raised fears of secondary sanctions.

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

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