China’s “zero covid” policy has a dedicated following: the millions of people who work diligently towards this goal, regardless of the human cost.
In northwestern Xi’an City, hospital staff refused to admit a man with chest pain because he lived in a medium-risk district. He died of a heart attack.
They informed a woman who was eight months pregnant and was bleeding that her Covid test was not valid. She lost her baby.
Two community guards told a young man they didn’t care that he had nothing to eat after he caught him during the lockdown. You beat him up.
The Xi’an government swiftly and decisively imposed a strict lockdown in late December as cases rose. But it was unwilling to provide food, medical care, and other necessities to the city’s 13 million residents, creating chaos and crises not seen since the country’s first lockdown in Wuhan in January 2020.
China’s early success in containing the pandemic through authoritarian iron-fisted policies encouraged its officials and apparently gave them permission to act with conviction and righteousness. Many officials now believe that they must do everything in their power to ensure that Covid infections do not occur, as this is the will of their Supreme Leader Xi Jinping.
Virus control is the number one priority for officials. People’s life, well-being, and dignity come much later.
The government has the help of a huge army of community workers zealously enforcing the policy and hordes of online nationalists attacking anyone who expresses complaints or concerns. The tragedies in Xi’an have led some Chinese people to wonder how those enforcing the quarantine rules should behave and who is ultimately responsible.
“It’s very easy to blame the people who committed the banality of evil,” wrote a user named @IWillNotResistIt on Weibo, the Chinese social media platform. “If you and I become the screws of this gigantic machine, we may not be able to withstand its strong pull either.”
“The banality of evil” is a term that Chinese intellectuals often conjure up in moments like Xi’an. It was coined by the philosopher Hannah Arendt, who wrote that Adolf Eichmann, one of the main architects of the Holocaust, was an ordinary person who was motivated by “extraordinary diligence in the search for personal progress”.
Chinese intellectuals are surprised at how many civil servants and civilians – often driven by professional ambition or obedience – are willing to facilitate authoritarian politics.
When the coronavirus surfaced in Wuhan two years ago, it exposed the weaknesses of China’s authoritarian system. Now, with patients dying of non-Covid diseases, residents starving and officials pointing the finger, the lockdown in Xi’an has shown the country’s political apparatus ossified in its single-minded pursuit of a zero-Covid policy gives a ruthlessness.
Xi’an, the capital of Shaanxi Province, is in a much better position than Wuhan in early 2020, when thousands of people died from the virus and overwhelmed the city’s medical system. Xi’an has only reported three Covid-related deaths, the most recent in March 2020. The city said 95 percent of its adults had been vaccinated by July. In the most recent wave, it had reported 2,017 confirmed cases and no deaths as of Monday.
Even so, a very tough lockdown was imposed. Residents were not allowed to leave their premises. Some buildings have been cordoned off. More than 45,000 people have been moved to quarantine facilities.
The city’s health code system, used to track people and enforce quarantines, collapsed under heavy use. Deliveries have largely disappeared. Some local residents used the internet to complain about not having enough to eat.
But the lockdown rules were scrupulously followed.
A couple of community volunteers had a young man who was going to buy food read a self-criticism letter in front of a video camera. “It was all about whether I had something to eat,” read the young man, according to a popular video. “I did not consider the serious consequences my behavior could have for the community.” The volunteers later apologized, according to The Beijing News, a state-run media company.
Three men were caught fleeing Xi’an for the countryside, possibly to avoid the high cost of the lockdown. They hiked, cycled and swam in wintry days and nights. Two of them were arrested by police, according to local police and media reports. Together they were called the “Xi’an Ironmen” on the Chinese Internet.
Then there were the hospitals, which denied patients access to medical care and deprived loved ones of the opportunity to say goodbye.
The man, who was dying of chest pain from a heart attack, waited six hours before he was finally admitted to the hospital. After his condition worsened, his daughter pleaded with hospital workers to let her in and see him for the last time.
A male employee refused, according to a video she posted on Weibo after her father died. “Do not try to morally kidnap me,” he said in the video. “I’m just doing my duty.”
Some subordinate officials from Xi’an were punished. The head of the city’s health commission apologized to the woman who suffered the miscarriage. The general manager of a hospital has been suspended. Last Friday, the city announced that no medical facility could turn away patients because of Covid tests.
But that’s about it. Even the state-run Central Television Station (CCTV) commented that some local officials simply blamed their subordinates. It appears, wrote the broadcaster, that only the lower-level cadres have been punished for these problems.
There are reasons why the people on the system showed little compassion and few expressed themselves online.
An emergency doctor in eastern Anhui Province was sentenced to 15 months in prison for failing to follow pandemic control protocols for treating a patient with a fever last year, according to CCTV.
A deputy director-level official at a government agency in Beijing was lost from his position last week after some social media users reported that an article he wrote about the Xi’an lockdown contained untrue information.
In the article he described the lockdown measures as “inhuman” and “cruel”. It was headlined, “The Sorrows of Xi’an Residents: Why They Flee Xi’an Breaking the Law and Risking Death”.
Since Wuhan, the Chinese Internet has become a church platform for nationalists to praise China, the government and the Communist Party. Dissenting opinions or criticism will not be tolerated and online complaints about the provision of ammunition to hostile foreign media will be attacked.
The social media platform Red censored a post by the daughter of the man who had died of a heart attack because, according to a screenshot on her account, it “contained negative information about society”.
In Xi’an, there is no author like Fang Fang, who writes her Wuhan lockdown diary, no citizen journalists Chen Qiushi, Fang Bin, or Zhang Zhan, who publish videos. The four were either silenced, imprisoned, disappeared, or left in prison dying – a powerful message for anyone who dares to speak about Xi’an.
The only widespread, in-depth article about the Xi’an lockdown was written by former journalist Zhang Wenmin, a resident of Xi’an known by her pen name Jiang Xue. Her article has since been deleted and State Security officials have warned her not to comment on the matter, said a person close to her. Some social media users called it trash that should be taken out.
Some Chinese publications, which had written excellent investigative articles from Wuhan, did not send reporters to Xi’an because, according to people familiar with the situation, they could not secure passports for free entry under lockdown.
The Xi’an lockdown debacle did not seem to convince many people in China to abandon the country’s unqualified approach to tackling the pandemic.
A former athlete who is disabled and suffers from a range of illnesses cursed Fang Fang for her Wuhan diary in 2020. Last month he posted on his Weibo account that he could not buy drugs because his compound in Xi ‘ is locked on. His problems have been resolved, and now he’s using the hashtag #everyoneinpositiveenergy and retweeting posts attacking Ms. Zhang, the former journalist.
Despite announcing the city’s fight against the virus as a victory last week, the government is not backing down on many rules and setting the bar very high for ending the lockdown. The Shaanxi party secretary told Xi’an officials on Monday that their future efforts to control the pandemic should remain “strict”.
“A pin-sized loophole can introduce high winds,” he said.
Claire Fu Research contributed.