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The Chinese Public Doesn’t Know Who to Trust Anymore

Amid rampant COVID outbreaks, people are confused and scared.

By , an author, reporter, and translator.
Patients with COVID-19 lie in beds at Tangshan Gongren Hospital in China's northeastern city of Tangshan.
Patients with COVID-19 lie in beds at Tangshan Gongren Hospital in China's northeastern city of Tangshan.
Patients with COVID-19 lie in beds at Tangshan Gongren Hospital in China's northeastern city of Tangshan on Dec. 30. Noel Celis/AFP via Getty Images

On Dec. 26, after almost a full day of waiting, Mrs. X’s father-in-law finally received treatment at Shenzhen Renmin Hospital. Mrs. X, who like other interviewees asked to use a pseudonym out of fear of government harassment, is a small-business owner in Shenzhen. Her father-in-law started displaying COVID-19 symptoms on Dec. 21, two weeks after China lifted most of its zero-COVID control measures in response to protests nationwide and a rapidly spreading outbreak in Beijing. Within a few days, the whole family was infected. Due to having an underlying heart condition, her father-in-law’s health drastically deteriorated, and on Dec. 25 she decided to take him to the hospital.

With the help of community workers, she was able to get an ambulance. Upon arriving at the hospital, she waited for hours in the emergency room, where hundreds of visibly ill patients, many of them coughing, were in line to see a doctor. Most of the patients were elderly people. The hospital was already overwhelmed, so it was prioritizing the elderly and people with underlying conditions. The health care workers looked ill as well and were complaining about having to work before they had fully recovered. One doctor told her that, every day, around a dozen people were dying in the emergency room. She waited there for five to six hours before she had to go home to take care of her young daughters. During that time, she saw three corpses being pushed away by family members and medical workers.

Fortunately, her father-in-law got a bed after a long wait, along with some brief treatment in the emergency room. COVID-19 symptoms worsened his underlying health condition, and he is on a ventilator now. Mrs. X said that she was feeling sick as well: “I feel very dizzy and sleepy. My fever made me feel cold. I haven’t had such a high fever in the past 20 years. I am, naturally, afraid that I won’t make it.”

On Dec. 26, after almost a full day of waiting, Mrs. X’s father-in-law finally received treatment at Shenzhen Renmin Hospital. Mrs. X, who like other interviewees asked to use a pseudonym out of fear of government harassment, is a small-business owner in Shenzhen. Her father-in-law started displaying COVID-19 symptoms on Dec. 21, two weeks after China lifted most of its zero-COVID control measures in response to protests nationwide and a rapidly spreading outbreak in Beijing. Within a few days, the whole family was infected. Due to having an underlying heart condition, her father-in-law’s health drastically deteriorated, and on Dec. 25 she decided to take him to the hospital.

With the help of community workers, she was able to get an ambulance. Upon arriving at the hospital, she waited for hours in the emergency room, where hundreds of visibly ill patients, many of them coughing, were in line to see a doctor. Most of the patients were elderly people. The hospital was already overwhelmed, so it was prioritizing the elderly and people with underlying conditions. The health care workers looked ill as well and were complaining about having to work before they had fully recovered. One doctor told her that, every day, around a dozen people were dying in the emergency room. She waited there for five to six hours before she had to go home to take care of her young daughters. During that time, she saw three corpses being pushed away by family members and medical workers.

Fortunately, her father-in-law got a bed after a long wait, along with some brief treatment in the emergency room. COVID-19 symptoms worsened his underlying health condition, and he is on a ventilator now. Mrs. X said that she was feeling sick as well: “I feel very dizzy and sleepy. My fever made me feel cold. I haven’t had such a high fever in the past 20 years. I am, naturally, afraid that I won’t make it.”

Mrs. X had always supported the Chinese government easing its zero-COVID policies. She told Foreign Policy that living under strict COVID controls had affected her family business and her mental health, especially since her business required frequent travel to Hong Kong, which had been extremely hard since early 2020. For most of the past three years, she has had to stay at home all day with multiple family members. Depression, frustration, and lack of freedom caused a lot of friction.

On Dec. 7, after China issued the “Notice on Further Optimizing and Implementing the Prevention and Control Measures” of COVID-19, the official document that led to sweeping changes to strict zero-COVID policies, she embraced the changes by sending her daughters back to school, unlike many parents, who still wanted their kids to take online courses. For a brief period of time, her life seemed to be back to normal—or something close: Packages could be delivered to her door instead of being delivered to community officers’ offices and being disinfected, and she could dine out with family and friends.

She was not afraid of catching COVID and even joked about it with her friends. She saw many well-known celebrities and entrepreneurs share their experiences after having COVID. Liu Qiangdong, the founder of e-commerce giant JD, stated in a video that “according to my personal experience, it is really milder than a cold,” claiming that “80 percent of people feel that the symptoms are milder than a cold, a severe cold, or the flu.” On Dec. 8, an article that had been officially approved by Zhang Wenhong, known as China’s Dr. Fauci, said that after catching COVID, only 0.5 percent of people would need to go to the hospital; the rest could get sufficient knowledge and treatment through family doctors in community health service centers, fever clinics, and telephone consultations. Such statements made by experts further assured Mrs. X that catching COVID was nothing to worry about.

However, after most of her family members caught COVID, Mrs. X started to doubt whether catching the virus was as mild as much of the propaganda claimed.

The new claims were a 180-degree turn from previous material. Before China started to downplay the severity of COVID in early December, the government had focused on COVID-19 death tolls in other countries to justify its strict policies. Chinese media outlets had also emphasized the potential risk of long COVID after recovery and claimed that it was common in Western countries. That shifted, too, with health officials now dismissing the dangers of long COVID entirely or describing it as psychological.

Mrs. Y, a young woman in Shijiazhuang, the capital of Hebei province, said some of her relatives were against the new opening-up policy. Shijiazhuang was one of the first cities in China to experiment with easing COVID control policies. On Nov. 11, China’s state council issued the “Notice on Further Optimizing the Prevention and Control Measures” of the COVID-19 pandemic, a then-mild easing of zero-COVID policies.

Following up on the notice, on Nov. 13 the Shijiazhuang government published a letter to all the residents emphasizing that “everyone is the ‘first person responsible’ for their own health,” a slogan that has become common in government materials across the country. On Nov. 14, “Shijiazhuang pandemic control and prevention” became the No. 1 trending topic on Weibo, as apartment complexes that were locked down suddenly opened up and people were able to enter shopping centers and take public transportation without showing negative COVID-19 test results. On Nov. 15, many students were asked to go back to campus, and many employees were asked to return to offices.

But Shijiazhuang residents were highly cautious, conscious of their status as guinea pigs. “They were not used to going out without showing negative COVID test results,” Mrs. Y said of her relatives. On the contrary, her relatives started to wear multiple masks when going out and tried to convince her to take sick leave to stay at home. Some even tried to take young kids to the family’s traditional hometown, a rural village with a very small population.

Her relatives were not alone. Multiple screen captures of WeChat group conversations were circulating on the internet, indicating that a number of parents living in Shijiazhuang were making up excuses for their children to avoid sending them back to school and that the absentee rate was very high. Chinese class sizes are typically between 40 and 60 students, but sometimes there was only a single student in class.

Many panicked netizens started to blame people who advocated loosening the zero-COVID policies. They called such people tang fei, which means “slacking-off crooks.” (The literal term is “lying flat bandits,” using a phrase now strongly associated with resistance to the rat race among young Chinese but which more generally means avoiding work.) Before this December, China’s propaganda described Western countries that were not implementing strict zero-COVID policies as “lying flat,” which was portrayed as irresponsible method. On Sept. 2, Xinhua wrote that “‘Lying flat’ in COVID  fight is bane for world.” On Oct. 12, the People’s Daily wrote, “Lying flat [against COVID ] is not advisable, and to win while lying flat is impossible.”

In such online statements, “slacking-off crooks” usually refers to the people who protested against China’s strict COVID control policies at the end of November, or to people who complained about the tragedies caused by strict lockdown policies and advocated for opening up. One Weibo post that gained almost 9,000 likes in less than 24 hours called “slacking-off crooks” those who “ignore the pandemic, [are] ruthless to life and shameless to the people.”

One popular article online was titled “After protecting you for three years, the country has done its best, good luck out there!” The piece speculated that “99% of Chinese people don’t want to coexist with the virus” and asked people to “never doubt the ‘dynamic zero’ policy because this is definitely the best blessing for all Chinese people.”

A doctor from Wuhan who worked on the front line during the initial outbreak of the pandemic in 2020 told Foreign Policy, asking for anonymity,, “We are not against opening up, but we are against opening up in this manner.” She said that the hospital was not prepared when all COVID prevention and control policies were lifted. According to her, COVID screening was not required anymore. This ensured that patients with COVID could be accepted and treated, but it also made it impossible to separate patients with or without COVID infections, which could lead to cross-infection in the hospital ward. In scenes reminiscent of early 2020 in Wuhan, patients flooded into the hospital, but it was not equipped with sufficient medicine and protective gear, which led to a severe shortage of medical resources.

According to the doctor, many medical workers are infected as well, worsening the situation in the hospital, and they, too, are unsure of the proper treatment. After catching COVID, she suffered from a high fever and shortness of breath for weeks, but she was called back to work after a week, before she had fully recovered.

She told Foreign Policy that many patients’ CT scans showed severe lung inflammation, while it is commonly believed that the omicron variant appears to cause less damage to the lungs. Many patients she saw also suffered from serious breathing issues, which was not common among people who contracted the omicron variant. She has heard various opinions. Some medical experts suspect that Chinese patients are suffering from more severe symptoms because the vaccines they received provide less protection, and some experts suspect that there is a new variant, but she isn’t sure what to believe.

In the past few days, the term “white lungs,” which refers to CT scans showing severe lung inflammation, has trended on Chinese websites and people are speculating that patients with white lungs were infected not with the omicron variant but with a previous variant or even the original strain that was spreading in Wuhan in early 2020. On Dec. 27, Jiao Yahui, director of the Department of National Health Commission’s Medical Administration Bureau, said in a media conference that “white lungs” have nothing to do with the original COVID strain or vaccination. However, people don’t seem to be convinced by this statement. Some of them have lost trust in government assurances and medical experts.

It’s a problem across almost all areas of Chinese life, not just health care. With government data now nonexistent or actively falsified, it’s hard for people to evaluate risk. Even if they are aware of the catastrophe unfolding in hospitals, just how severe new variants might be—or how effective the Chinese vaccines are—is impossible to know. The rich are now rushing to Macau for mRNA shots and buying up Paxlovid online; the rest of the public has been left to struggle on its own.

Tracy Wen Liu is an investigative reporter, author, and translator who focuses on the U.S.-China relationship.

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