Bus Crash Amplifies Zero-COVID Frustration
Discontent with the restrictive policy seems to serve as a proxy for discontent with Xi Jinping’s government itself.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s China Brief.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s China Brief.
The highlights this week: A deadly bus crash in Guizhou province has exacerbated public frustration with China’s zero-COVID policy, U.S. President Joe Biden slips up again about the official U.S. position on Taiwan, and a leading livestreamer returns to business after censorship.
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Frustration Over China’s Zero-COVID Policy Deepens
Twenty-seven people died in a bus crash in China’s Guizhou province in the early hours last Sunday on their way to compulsory COVID-19 quarantine. The incident has prompted outrage online about the government’s zero-COVID policy, which has led to at least partial lockdowns of hundreds of millions of people in China. The public sentiment seems to be, “We could have been on that bus”—but it’s unlikely that this anger will translate to policy changes.
Bus crashes are not rare in China; according to the World Health Organization, the country sees hundreds of thousands of traffic deaths each year, even though only one-third of the population has a car. Although the economic impact of China’s zero-COVID policy is well known by this point, the daily effects for individuals have gone largely uncovered. Anger over the quarantine bus crash is thus a sign of fraying patience in China.
With some brave exceptions, Chinese media is under ever greater pressure to produce only positive stories about the fight against COVID-19. But in the last week alone, I have heard from contacts in China about a a teacher who suffered a breakdown because of the return to online instruction; a patient dying because lockdown made it impossible to make dialysis appointments; and a 13-year-old child separated from his parents for two weeks of quarantine after a COVID-19 exposure.
The pressure on those caught in COVID-19 lockdowns is obvious, and the possibility of a lockdown hangs over the entire Chinese population. Individual residential compounds or neighborhoods can be put under targeted lockdowns with zero notice. The fear of getting stuck away from food, medicine, and family is acute, especially in the wake of Shanghai’s two-month lockdown this year, when the scale of the city’s suffering broke through the cordon of censorship. Mass testing and constant surveillance are also fraying nerves.
As the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) approaches on Oct. 16, the gap between the experience of zero-COVID policy and its portrayal in propaganda has widened. The event will likely be a new coronation for Chinese President Xi Jinping, intensifying the need for positivity. Media instructions emphasize depictions of victory over COVID-19 outbreaks. At the same time, officials fear an outbreak that could disrupt the Congress or reach into the confined circles of the leadership gathered there.
Frustration with China’s zero-COVID policy also serves as a proxy for wider feelings of discontent. Although coverage of problems around lockdowns and restrictions is censored, discussion of them isn’t as risky as talking openly about other forms of repression under Xi. Politics has become ever more intrusive in the everyday life of Chinese people, including arrests for private online conversations, the censorship of U.S. sports and TV shows, camera-monitoring of private spaces, and demands to attend hourslong CCP meetings during work.
Many Chinese once implicitly believed the political bargain that the CCP would stay out of their lives as long as they avoided certain red-line issues—even if it was never quite true on the ground. That myth has broken down, replaced with compulsory “Xi Jinping thought.” Frustration with the intrusive control and top-down oppression of the zero-COVID policy is real—but it’s also a way of talking about the intrusive control and top-down oppression of life under Xi’s CCP.
What We’re Following
Biden’s Taiwan slips. For the fourth time, U.S. President Joe Biden has said the United States will defend Taiwan in the event of an invasion by China—followed by the White House confirming that there has been no change in long-standing U.S. policy. That policy—“strategic ambiguity” —strongly suggests that the United States would defend Taiwan without committing to it. China did not respond aggressively to the news, instead dialing down its rhetoric from the heights achieved around U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan in August.
Although it’s possible that Biden has repeatedly made the same mistake, it seems likely that he is signaling U.S. commitment to Taiwan—and hopefully further deterring China—while leaving enough ambiguity with official follow-up statements to indicate his slip hasn’t become an official U.S. position. Officials in Washington have speculated that China has plans to attack Taiwan by 2027; that position is not well sourced, but it may have shaped Biden’s approach.
The risk of Biden taking this approach is that it deepens China’s conviction that the United States is actively preparing for a war. The counterargument is that China’s leadership seems to think the United States is behind other plots too, largely detached from its actual actions.
Does China want a Ukraine cease-fire? Agence France-Presse reports that China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement on Ukraine calling for a “ceasefire” and a “solution that accommodates the legitimate security concerns of all parties.” However, a later statement from the ministry itself omitted the word cease-fire and called for general “dialogue & consultation.” It’s not uncommon for Chinese spokespeople to say one thing and then alter the record for political reasons.
However, even the call for a cease-fire was not a particularly powerful statement given that China’s interpretation of “legitimate security concerns” leans toward Russia’s position: Chinese state media continues to blame the United States and NATO for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. China’s position remains as it was at the start of the war: a generally anti-Western view coupled with sympathy for Russia that doesn’t extend to concrete support for the invasion.
Political expert Zongyuan Zoe Liu writes in Foreign Policy that China may be looking to use Russia’s desperation as a testing ground for its own policies of de-dollarization through small and medium banks rather than risking U.S. sanctions for larger entities.
FP’s Most Read This Week
• Ukraine Put Putin in the Corner. Here’s What May Happen Next. by Amy Mackinnon, Jack Detsch, and Robbie Gramer
• Kazakhstan Is Breaking Out of Russia’s Grip by Temur Umarov
• What Russia’s Elites Think of Putin Now by Tatiana Stanovaya
Tech and Business
Windows forever. Russia is pushing to switch all computer operating systems to Linux, following its cutoff from Microsoft upgrades and security patches under U.S. sanctions. Many Russian machines ran on pirated older versions of Microsoft products anyway. China has been attempting to ditch Windows for years for security reasons: The impact of sanctions on Russia shows that even being cut off from Microsoft upgrades and patches would be a severe problem and gives an extra push to China’s desire to change.
Miao Wei, a former head of China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, recently called the operating system issue a bigger threat than chips—referring to the contest around semiconductor production. But China has struggled with the issue for 22 years and made very little progress. Despite nominal bans, most government computers continue to run on Windows.
One of the problems is that Windows is much better set up for information technology administration than Linux—and, in general, is a far more user-friendly server.
Provincial empire exposed. Caixin recently published a fascinating exposé on Lu Yi, the Henan businessman blamed for the province’s banking crisis, which triggered protests this year. Lu’s story offers valuable insight into how provincial business empires work. They are frequently built on the back of loans from local governments and obtained on fraudulent terms. A key part of Lu’s empire was acquiring rights to a stretch of highway tolls, which he used as collateral for other loans.
China used tolls to fund the massive expansion of roads in the 1990s and 2000s. Often, the rights to the tolls was sold off to cover the loans taken out by local governments to build the roads in the first place. The tolls were usually supposed to only last for a decade, but they were often kept in place because they became a key part of local government revenue or were acquired by entrepreneurs like Lu. In 2008, a government audit found that $3.1 billion had been collected from Chinese drivers in illegal tolls, prompting failed attempts at crackdowns.
However, in 2020, the government suspended all tolls to help with pandemic economic recovery efforts; the resulting gap in finances may be unraveling more business fiefdoms than just Lu’s. Fortunately for Lu, he was canny enough to stash his money overseas—and he may already be out of the country.
An influencer returns. With no fanfare, leading Chinese e-commerce livestreamer Li Jiaqi, known as the “Lipstick King” for his videos selling makeup, returned to business on Tuesday, soon attracting 60 million viewers. Li was pulled offline without warning after accidentally showing an image of a cake shaped like a tank on June 3, a day before the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. He is the only major livestreamer taken offline during a government crackdown on the industry who has returned.
Li’s personal connections and vast wealth may have gotten him out of trouble, but it’s also possible that economic desperation is setting in enough that a figure like the flamboyant Li, who moves enormous amounts of sales, can’t just be thrown away.
James Palmer is a deputy editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @BeijingPalmer
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