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China’s COVID-19 Data Doesn’t Match Its Harsh Restrictions

Officials say case numbers in Shanghai are falling, but millions of residents are still locked down.

James Palmer
By , a deputy editor at Foreign Policy.
Workers wearing protective gear stack up boxes to deliver in the Jing'an district in Shanghai on May 7.
Workers wearing protective gear stack up boxes to deliver in the Jing'an district in Shanghai on May 7.
Workers wearing protective gear stack up boxes to deliver in the Jing'an district in Shanghai on May 7. HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP via Getty Images

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s China Brief.

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s China Brief.

The highlights this week: Shanghai remains locked down even as officials say COVID-19 cases are falling, Hong Kong authorities arrest a prominent Catholic leader amid opposition crackdown, and China orders the replacement of all foreign-made computers in the government.

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Why Is Shanghai Still Locked Down?

As Shanghai’s lockdown enters its seventh week, the harsh restrictions no longer seem to match the official COVID-19 case count. The number of new daily cases in the city has fallen sharply, including a 50 percent drop on Wednesday. Authorities have declared that half of Shanghai has reached “zero-COVID” status and that the end of the outbreak is in sight.

However, the return to normalcy that residents were promised once cases decreased still hasn’t arrived. Many parts of Shanghai now fall under a no-deliveries order, making it impossible to obtain food or supplies except from government-provided packages. Residents are entirely confined to their homes, and authorities have constructed new barriers daily, blocking roads and dividing neighborhoods.

The city has expanded its quarantine policies: A positive case now sends not only the person’s household but also anyone living in the apartments on their floor into lockdown. Behind locked doors, residents are fuming—and that anger has spilled into the otherwise empty streets, from residents’ protests to workers’ fights with factory guards.

The harsh restrictions could be the last big push to solidify success against COVID-19. But it’s also possible that the case numbers are simply inaccurate, with authorities under increasing political pressure to end the outbreak. Lying about data is a short-term strategy, but it’s a common one among Chinese officials; they may only be thinking of declaring victory by late May. Shanghai’s disproportionately small death figures are certainly false, especially given outbreaks among older residents.

But the gap between case numbers and government action could also be the result of perverse incentives. Conditions in quarantine are so bad that people may be avoiding reporting their at-home positive results—as well as trying to dodge mass testing. Shanghai’s quarantine enforcers have acquired a reputation for brutality and incompetence. Their ranks are filled mostly with chengguan—urban enforcers who under normal circumstances are known for bullying and extortion.

Meanwhile, China’s central government is still doubling down on its zero-COVID policy. That decision comes from the top: President Xi Jinping gave a much-publicized speech last week that endorsed sticking with the policy indefinitely and called for a “resolute fight” against any critics. On Tuesday, the front page of the People’s Daily declared, “Persistence is victory.” The rhetoric about COVID-19 has become increasingly militarized, signaling that easing up is not on the table.

State media sources tell me that the central government’s approach has changed since just a couple of months ago, when tentative discussion of a change in approach toward the pandemic was acceptable. Now it seems that the only acceptable line is enthusiastic support for the zero-COVID policy and attacks against those who criticize it, including U.S. health advisor Anthony Fauci and Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the chief of the World Health Organization.

Online censorship has also tightened. Chinese-made COVID-19 vaccines present a major problem for the current outbreak, underperforming compared to mRNA vaccines. A new study estimates if China drops its zero-COVID policy now, without better vaccines and treatment, an epidemic could cause 1.5 million deaths. But discussing these issues remains verboten in Chinese media, which instead dedicates itself to disinformation about Western-made vaccines.

The ongoing issues and anger in Shanghai will likely affect national politics. The city’s party chief, Li Qiang, is a high-flyer who is close to Xi; he could have been promoted to the Standing Committee, the small central group of top Chinese Communist Party officials, this year—even potentially replacing Premier Li Keqiang. But Xi might have to sacrifice Li Qiang’s career as a concession to critics by scapegoating him for the failures in Shanghai, especially as Li Keqiang shores up his position on the committee.

At the same time, many other Chinese cities have quietly implemented even harsher COVID-19 restrictions. Approximately 400 million people are now under some form of lockdown. Schools, offices, and parks are closed in Beijing, and fences around residential compounds have been reinforced with barbed wire and more cameras. Restaurants in many cities have again scaled back their operations. Across the country, it’s not just the immediate impact of strict measures that has shackled the economy; it’s also a sense of fear that the worst may be yet to come.

What We’re Following

Cardinal Zen arrested. Hong Kong authorities have arrested 90-year-old Catholic Cardinal Joseph Zen, a prominent pro-democracy figure, for alleged “collusions with foreign forces” under the Beijing-imposed national security law. The move comes just days after long-term securocrat John Lee took office as Hong Kong’s chief executive, and it signals that the city’s crackdown on the opposition continues apace.

Authorities accusing Hong Kongers of being foreign agents seems to be the new normal. Zen’s arrest has prompted “concern” from the Vatican but no stronger statement yet. Pope Francis has faced criticism for reaching a secret deal with China in return for supposed protection for the Catholic Church. China’s persecution of Christians has stepped up under Xi, although it remains below the level of targeting of Muslims or Tibetan Buddhists.

Kashgar bazaar destroyed. Chinese authorities have razed large parts of the famous Grand Bazaar of Kashgar, once a noted tourist attraction and a center of Uyghur commercial culture. China’s genocidal campaign in Xinjiang has targeted Uyghur businesses and cultural sites, with enterprises often sold by the state to members of the Han ethnic majority when the original owners are sent to internment camps.

It’s likely that the Grand Bazaar won’t be completely destroyed but rather turned into an inauthentic version of itself designed as a tourist attraction for Han Chinese. This fits with a trend across China: Major markets in the center of Beijing have been demolished or remade as corporate brands, with ordinary vendors pushed to the edge of the city.

Taiwan wording changed. The U.S. State Department recently changed the wording on its Taiwan relations webpage—notably, removing the statements “The United States does not support Taiwan independence” and “acknowledging the Chinese position that there is one China and Taiwan is a part of China.” Washington has substantially stepped up its relations with Taipei in recent years. Although China, Taiwan, and the United States all in theory agreed on the “One China” policy, they have long maintained radically different interpretations.

Technical wording over Taiwan is a major red line in Chinese media and government, where workers can be fined weeks of income for accidentally implying that Taiwan is a state. Although it is unclear how it was decided, the State Department change has provoked fierce condemnation from Beijing.

Tech and Business

Computer replacements. China has ordered that foreign-made computers within the government be replaced, possibly prompting the dumping of as many as 50 million machines. However, I’m skeptical the policy will be carried out to scale. China has been trying to replace the Windows operating system with a homegrown Linux variant, Kylin, since 2001. Kylin was supposed to have replaced Windows entirely by this year; that doesn’t seem to have happened.

None of this will come as a surprise to anyone who knows how persistent legacy systems are in government offices around the world: The United States is having similar problems removing Chinese technology from its own systems years after bans on companies such as Huawei.

Economic gloom. Coronavirus outbreaks are wreaking havoc on the Chinese economy, and signs are all over the place; the latest is a 35 percent drop in car sales. Shanghai factories are the worst affected, with major firms shutting down production and a huge supply backlog. The persistent uncertainty is dragging down the whole economy, with one major economist calling the impact 10 times worse than that of the Wuhan outbreak. The blows are hitting global companies, especially in the luxury and technology sectors.

One small bright spot for China: The country will remain largely unaffected by the market shocks currently roiling the United States. Chinese regulators have been highly hostile to the cryptocurrency industry, seeing it largely as a vehicle for money laundering and a source of financial scams.

Climate conspiracies. Rolling Stone reported this week that for his first two years in office, former U.S. President Donald Trump was obsessed with the idea that China had a hurricane gun aimed at the United States. I am disappointed to announce that China does not have such technology, but the story is a good example of how conspiracy theories become free-floating signifiers attached to any villain at hand, whether it be Washington or Beijing.

The High-Frequency Active Auroral Research Program, a U.S. scientific research initiative started in 1993 to study the upper atmosphere, has inspired many weather control conspiracy theories. Claims that the program engineered extreme weather events spread not only among the U.S. far right but also in China, Russia, and other countries; the Indian environment minister blamed it for global warming and crop failure in 2016.

As China expanded its own cloud-seeding program, weather control theories became attached to Beijing. An expanded radar program at sea led to wild media claims in 2018. Although today’s conspiracy theories seem to center around COVID-19 and bioengineering, as climate disaster becomes more regular, expect theories like Trump’s to make a comeback.

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

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