Dispatch

The view from the ground.

Beijing’s ‘Slow-Motion Lockdown’

Residents feel the walls are closing in with tighter restrictions in pursuit of zero COVID-19.

By , Newsweek’s Beijing bureau chief.
People in white personal protective equipment are seen in dark lighting.
People in white personal protective equipment are seen in dark lighting.
Health workers wearing personal protective equipment are seen at the entrance of a fenced residential area under lockdown due to COVID-19 restrictions in Beijing on May 18. Noel Celis/AFP via Getty Images

BEIJING—For many of us in Beijing, the walls seem to be closing in. We’re fortunate that China’s capital has—at least for now—avoided the initial food shortages and nightmarish scenes that plagued Shanghai’s citywide anti-COVID-19 lockdown. But a step-by-step “soft lockdown” is nonetheless unfolding in Beijing. If I’m COVID-free and don’t come close to known or suspected COVID-19 cases, I can move about the city. But in my district, each day it feels like there are fewer places to go, less to do, and more hassles to finding transport. “Slow-motion lockdown,” is how one friend put it, comparing Beijing’s ever-tighter constrictions to “being squeezed by a Burmese python.”

Authorities have clearly learned some lessons from the chaos in Shanghai, where lockdowns are lifting after seven weeks of fear, despair, and angry altercations. We’ve all seen the familiar social media videos showing “big whites”—workers in white hazmat suits—splintering apartment doors to drag people forcibly to central quarantine facilities or beating a pet corgi to death on the street. In one video, a distraught white man tried repeatedly to run away from several of the hazmat-suited workers as he shouted in English: “I want to die! I want to die!”

Beijing has nowhere near the number of infections that Shanghai did. Still, residents feel jittery and claustrophobic. Students at the Wanliu campus of Peking University were unhappy at being confined to one part of the campus and banned from receiving visitors. Then they were ordered not to leave their dorms or receive food deliveries. When they saw sheet metal “lockdown fences” being erected Sunday night, up to 300 students protested. They confronted university officials to demand the removal of the fencing, which would’ve segregated them from faculty and staff, leaving the latter groups able to move much more freely. Chanting “Tear it down! Tear it down,” some students pulled down some of the fences before dispersing.

BEIJING—For many of us in Beijing, the walls seem to be closing in. We’re fortunate that China’s capital has—at least for now—avoided the initial food shortages and nightmarish scenes that plagued Shanghai’s citywide anti-COVID-19 lockdown. But a step-by-step “soft lockdown” is nonetheless unfolding in Beijing. If I’m COVID-free and don’t come close to known or suspected COVID-19 cases, I can move about the city. But in my district, each day it feels like there are fewer places to go, less to do, and more hassles to finding transport. “Slow-motion lockdown,” is how one friend put it, comparing Beijing’s ever-tighter constrictions to “being squeezed by a Burmese python.”

Authorities have clearly learned some lessons from the chaos in Shanghai, where lockdowns are lifting after seven weeks of fear, despair, and angry altercations. We’ve all seen the familiar social media videos showing “big whites”—workers in white hazmat suits—splintering apartment doors to drag people forcibly to central quarantine facilities or beating a pet corgi to death on the street. In one video, a distraught white man tried repeatedly to run away from several of the hazmat-suited workers as he shouted in English: “I want to die! I want to die!”

Beijing has nowhere near the number of infections that Shanghai did. Still, residents feel jittery and claustrophobic. Students at the Wanliu campus of Peking University were unhappy at being confined to one part of the campus and banned from receiving visitors. Then they were ordered not to leave their dorms or receive food deliveries. When they saw sheet metal “lockdown fences” being erected Sunday night, up to 300 students protested. They confronted university officials to demand the removal of the fencing, which would’ve segregated them from faculty and staff, leaving the latter groups able to move much more freely. Chanting “Tear it down! Tear it down,” some students pulled down some of the fences before dispersing.

Afterward, officials agreed to relax restrictions on students’ movements and to provide grocery deliveries. Video filmed during the incident was quickly censored on Chinese social media—proof that apparatchiks are busy building walls in cyberspace too. But acquaintances said they knew almost immediately that something had erupted at Peking University, called Beijing Da Xue in Chinese and nicknamed Beida. “I kept seeing people’s posts declaring ‘the phrase Beida is banned,’” one Chinese friend told FP. Another cited numerous posts and video segments related to the protests that people had downloaded and then recirculated or posted on YouTube.

Historically, Beida has been a wellspring of student activism, such as during the 1919 May Fourth Movement, when young protesters marched from campus to Tiananmen Square to protest their government’s inability to protect Chinese interests in the Treaty of Versailles. Dissent at Beida also played a role during the 1989 Tiananmen Square demonstrations, which ended tragically in bloodshed on June 4. If you’re old enough to have witnessed the 1989 unrest (as I am), you might feel a flash of déjà vu while watching this week’s blurry video of Beida vice principal Chen Baojian trying to persuade students to return to their dorms and promising to visit them “room by room” to hear their concerns.

Even Sunday’s small-scale and nonviolent show of dissent is a worrying omen for Chinese President Xi Jinping. He has conspicuously tied his legacy to the success of Beijing’s “zero COVID” policy, even as nearly every other nation on Earth has abandoned it. Indeed, zero COVID-19 today seems much more than a public health strategy; in China, it’s now a full-blown ideological campaign. In a recent meeting of the powerful Politburo Standing Committee, Xi called for a doubling down on the draconian approach. “We have won the battle to defend Wuhan [where COVID-19 first emerged] and can certainly win the battle to defend Shanghai,” state-run media reported. Unlike in the past, there was no mention of balancing anti-pandemic measures against the need for economic growth.

In China, “zero COVID” is now a full-blown ideological campaign.

Not all of China’s news is bad. Each day, Beijing usually reports only a few dozen newly confirmed daily infections. In Shanghai, some factories are reopening, and authorities are heartened by decreasing COVID-19 cases. They’ve vowed to accelerate the reopening of residential compounds, especially in June. Even so, after many weeks of stringent lockdowns, lack of transparency, and broken promises, residents remain wary. One user on the social media platform Weibo commented, “Why should I believe you after all the lies you’ve told?”

Over the past week, China’s National Bureau of Statistics has painted an increasingly dire picture of zero COVID’s economic toll. Retail sales fell more than 11 percent year on year; unemployment has hit a pandemic-era record. After China’s recent five-day May holiday, the country’s tourism ministry said tourism revenue has plummeted 43 percent compared to the same period last year. China’s GDP is expected to contract in the second quarter before starting to recover in the second half of the year. China’s target GDP growth rate of 5.5 percent for 2022 seems like a stretch.

Some of the collateral damage may take time to play out. Michael Hart, president of the American Chamber of Commerce in China, warned on Tuesday about the long-term effects of China’s travel hassles, including frequent flight cancellations, visa complications, and lengthy quarantines for incoming travelers. These have blocked the pipeline for new investment projects, delaying the process of research and due diligence, he told CNBC: “Two, three, four years from now, I predict a massive decline in investment in China because no new projects are being teed up.” A flash survey released by the chamber last week warned of an “exodus” of foreign staff in China due to COVID-19 measures and ongoing lockdowns. It also said 58 percent of members had decreased their revenue projections for the year.

Numbers don’t tell the whole story. Farewell dinners seem more and more frequent (taking place in private homes because Beijing has restricted restaurants to takeout only). Recently, I’ve spent hectic days sorting, packing, moving, and otherwise helping to dispose of the belongings of close friends who are exiting China—some for good; others for at least a year. A few days ago, Beijing announced it would not host the Asian Cup (AFC) next summer, citing pandemic concerns. For some expatriates, that became another strong reason to begin planning their own great escape.

Most of us assumed this year would be largely consumed by a “silly season” of domestic politics, climaxing with the National Party Congress in the fall, when Xi was expected to eliminate term limits and set himself up potentially to become a leader for life. But the AFC announcement set off alarms because it suggested zero-COVID restrictions might last well into 2023. Beijing had invested heavily on building and refurbishing stadiums in a number of cities for the event, which was scheduled for June and July 2023. “That’s 14 or 15 months away,” said American lawyer and long-term Beijing resident James Zimmerman. “To shut the door on the world so far in advance doesn’t sound so rational.” It also draws a question mark over the Chinese leadership’s confidence in its own ability to vanquish the pandemic. “Killing the Asian Cup was the last straw,” commented one foreign-passport-holder.

Shouldn’t we be more worried about Chinese wanting to leave China? In fact, quite a number of Chinese say they’d like to leave, at least until things “get back to normal.” That’s easier said than done. Since the beginning of the pandemic, Chinese passports have become difficult to obtain and renew. Recently, the government said it would “strictly limit” citizens from overseas travel. Foreign citizens married to Chinese nationals are worried that their spouses will be barred from leaving. In the midst of lockdowns, with most workers pressured to work from home, processes like obtaining foreign visas or seeking notarial services for overseas transactions are a morass of red tape.

And who cares if expatriates don’t feel as welcome in China as they once had? This was a big question when I began reporting on the expat exodus late last year. At the time, I interviewed Joerg Wuttke, chairman of the European Union Chamber of Commerce in China, who warned that even if Western firms continue doing business with and in China, an exodus of individual expats would eventually result in a less creative and less innovative environment. I was struck by how pessimistic he seemed compared to just half a year earlier. I asked him to rate how worried he was about China on a scale of one to 10: 10 being “peak pessimism” on China’s business environment. He said he was “about at eight.”

Today, his mood is even gloomier. Wuttke estimates that half the Europeans who resided in pre-pandemic China have left—and that 50 percent of those who’ve remained may also depart if the status quo continues. There’s a distinct “end of era” feeling these days, Zimmerman said. “All of us seem to be waiting for something to happen, for the government to have a predictable plan for, say, the next 12 months,” he added.

Zimmerman has good reason to long for predictability. He traveled to the United States last year and wound up having heart surgery in California. After recovering and undergoing physical rehab, he flew to China in March, landing in Shanghai. However, due to Shanghai’s alarming COVID-19 surge, he wound up quarantining first in Shanghai—and again in Beijing. Altogether, he spent 37 days in designated quarantine facilities, where the tiny rooms made meaningful exercise virtually impossible. As soon as he’d completed his quarantine, he emerged into Beijing’s “slow lockdown” and began taking daily COVID-19 tests. “First, it was for three straight days. That’s okay,” Zimmerman said. “Then it was three more days. And three more days. It seems never-ending. When you’ve created a bureaucracy, it takes on a life of its own. You’ve created a monster.”

Melinda Liu is a Beijing-based foreign-policy commentator, Newsweek’s Beijing bureau chief, and the co-author of Beijing Spring.

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