Depressed, powerless, angry: why frustration at China’s zero-Covid is spilling over

Victoria Li* has experienced several lockdowns since Covid emerged in China almost three years ago. Being a prisoner in her own home in Beijing made her feel depressed, powerless and angry.

“Being stuck at home with my door sealed, I felt unmotivated to do anything,” she said. “I didn’t want to work, I didn’t want to study. Sometimes, I crept into my bed and cried,” said the lawyer, who is in her 20s.

Even when she was not in lockdown, the draconian restrictions upended her normal life.

After a colleague tested positive, Li was deemed a close contact and lost her green health code for a month, meaning she was barred from public places. “I wasn’t able to enter the markets or the shops. I couldn’t go to the office,” she said. “It affected my work too – business was bad and my boss became bad tempered.” Longing for a normal life, Li has recently applied to emigrate to Canada.

As Beijing’s iron-fisted “dynamic zero-Covid” policy prepares to enter its third year, Li is one of millions across China who have reached the end of their patience. As the numbers of daily cases hit an all-time high, many began to question the heavy price they have paid for a goal that is impossible to achieve.

On Wednesday, the national health commission reported 31,444 new locally transmitted cases, the highest daily figure since the coronavirus was first detected in the central Chinese city of Wuhan in late 2019.

Although China’s case numbers are low compared with global figures, the authorities have insisted on a “war of annihilation” against the virus. As China reported the first Covid deaths in six months last week, a fresh series of lockdowns has been imposed across the country.

The rare outbursts of public anger that have surfaced over the past two weeks are the most visible signs of the deep-seated frustration and scepticism over the endless lockdowns, mass testing and quarantines Chinese people have recently endured.

In videos shared on social mediaon Saturday, people in Ürümqi, the capital of the Xinjiang region, appeared to be angrily confronting officials after an apartment fire killed 10 people.

Thousands of workers in an Apple iPhone factory in central China last week clashed with riot police and tore down barricades. The previous week, migrant workers in the southern Chinese metropolis of Guangzhou crashed through lockdown barriers and marched on the streets.

Also in recent weeks, there has been an outpouring of grief on social media over the death of a four-month-old baby whose father said her medical treatment was delayed for 12 hours because of Covid curbs. The death of a three-year-old boy in north-west China from carbon monoxide poisoning after his father was stopped by enforcers of Covid rules from taking him to a hospital also sparked outrage.

A 32-year-old mother of two killed herself in a quarantine centre in Guangzhou earlier this month after she was tested positive and separated from her husband. The news story, reported by respected financial publication Caixin, was quickly scrubbed from social media.

The public’s sense of scepticism over the effectiveness of the zero-tolerance approach is increasingly obvious too. Voices of dissent or narratives that deviate from the official lines are also swiftly taken down from the internet.

One of those was a social media post that asked 10 tough questions about the authorities’ handling of the pandemic. “Historically, have any flu viruses ever been wiped out? If not, how can the coronavirus be eradicated? What price must we pay? What is the point of rounds and rounds of PCR tests?” it asked.

Another post gave tongue-in-cheek answers to the questions, including: “This is not what you should ask”; “This is not what you know”; and “These are dangerous thoughts.”

On 11 November, the Chinese government announced it would shorten quarantine and ease some restrictions. Local officials were told to refrain from overenforcement of anti-virus policies, but confusingly, it also insisted that China’s “war” against the pandemic remains firmly in place.

Shijiazhuang, a city of 11 million people about 180 miles from the capital, was a rumoured test case for dispensing with Covid restrictions. It opened up, but just nine days later was closed down again as the national number of daily cases surged to an all-time high.

Observers say no matter what the central government says, the Covid restrictions are unlikely to be relaxed in reality, because China’s top-down power structure means local officials would not shy away from overstrict implementation to avoid being blamed for cases surging.

Given that restrictions are unlikely to be lifted any time soon, analysts expect the protests to escalate, but also they noted that these instances of sporadic unrest are unlikely to pose a threat to a dictatorial government that has the power to swiftly crack down on them.

“The protests have stayed sporadic and unorganised … If they look like they are snowballing, it is more because people everywhere are affected,” said Prof Victoria Tin-bor Hui, a political scientist at Notre Dame University in Indiana. “[But] Covid measures have also drastically increased the party’s surveillance capacity. The tensions will escalate, but we can’t predict when the explosion will come.”

Prof Chung Kim-wah, a social scientist formerly at Hong Kong Polytechnic University, said the protests “demonstrate that people have lost patience with the unreasonable [Covid] measures and are questioning their effectiveness”, but added that the unorganised protests are not a strong enough force to confront the government. He noted that if minor adjustments are made, protesters typically give in. “This makes bottom-up changes very difficult, if not impossible,” he said.

*Name has been changed.

Additional reporting by Xiaoqian Zhu

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