Xi’an was placed under strict lockdown orders on December 23 in a drastic attempt to contain the spread of the fast-growing COVID-19 cluster. But in the days and weeks that followed, the nation was shocked by a steady stream of complaints about food shortages, as well as heartbreaking scenes of critically ill patients – including heavily pregnant women – who were denied medical care.
Many were reminded of the agonizing early days of the epidemic in Wuhan, the original center where 11 million residents were confined to their homes for several months in 2020.
Since then, China has relied on a combination of mass testing, sudden shutdowns and sweeping quarantine measures to stem renewed explosions. The virus eradication strategy has successfully shielded the country from the worst of the pandemic, potentially saving millions of lives and winning overwhelming popular support.
The ruling Communist Party took this success as evidence that its authoritarian one-party political model is superior to Western democracies, which have struggled to control the outbreak.
But along the same lines, the tragedies unfolding in Xi’an also stem from the same top-down political system, which demands absolute loyalty, tolerates no opposition and places the interests of the whole above the rights of individuals.
With Beijing set to achieve its goal of stamping out the coronavirus, local officials often pledge to do “at all costs” to bring cases back to zero — causing major disruption to daily life and at times to the detriment of those they are supposed to protect.
“Nobody cares what you die from – other than Covid-19,” one user wrote on Chinese social media this week.
Yanzhong Huang, senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations, describes the phenomenon as “toxic politics.”
“Over the past decades, the policy process – in terms of agenda setting, policy formulation and implementation – in China has been top-down, non-participatory, improvisational and mobilizing,” he said.
“This has facilitated local leaders to impose those political measures on the community, which is not in a position to negotiate with the state in making and implementing policies.”
In a way, Xi’an’s dysfunction is no exception. Complaints about disproportionately harsh measures abound during previous prolonged lockdowns in other relatively smaller regions, from cities in the western region of Xinjiang to the southern border town of Ruili. But in Xi’an, such problems occurred more extreme, on a larger scale, and received much wider attention.
“People like to use Shanghai as a reference point,” Huang said, referring to the Chinese financial hub that has been widely praised for its purposeful and purposeful response to the Covid virus. “But they forgot that Shanghai is actually a rare case because of its relatively strong bureaucratic capacity.”
“When capacity is low, government officials are more likely to resort to harsh, indiscriminate and even excessive measures that significantly raise the cost of implementing the (zero COVID) strategy,” he said, citing Xi’an as an example. .
Over the past week, Xi’an city authorities have faced a public protest over strict lockdown measures that have prevented critical patients from urgent medical care. A heavily pregnant woman allegedly miscarried on New Year’s Day after the hospital denied her entry because she did not have a valid Covid test. A young woman claimed she lost her father to a heart attack after her rescue was too late, after she was rejected by hospitals for coming from a “medium risk area” of the city.
“The guard said he was doing his job; the nurse said she was doing her job; the hospital said she was doing her job. From the perspective of all the requirements of epidemic prevention and control, no one was wrong. So who does the problem are you lying with?” she asked.
To quell public anger, the Chinese Communist Party moved quickly to announce a series of sanctions: hospital administrators were suspended or removed from positions, while disciplinary warnings were issued to key public health officials in the city.
At a press conference on Thursday, Liu Shunzhi, head of the Xi’an Municipal Health Commission, bowed and apologized to the woman who lost her baby, as well as other patients who had problems getting medical treatment.
“We are deeply saddened and sorry to see such problems happen, which exposed the laxity in prevention and control work and the lesson is profound,” Sun was quoted by state media as saying. The original goal of epidemic prevention and control is to keep people healthy and protect their lives. “
In blaming local officials for failing to do their job well, Sun ignored the deeper root cause that pushed the Xi’an authorities to such extremes in implementing the lockdown – the massive political pressure to achieve the central government’s goal of eradicating COVID-19.
Across China, hundreds of local officials have been fired or punished for failing to contain the COVID blasts in their regions. With the Lunar New Year and the Beijing Winter Olympics fast approaching, that pressure has intensified.
Meanwhile, China’s political system has become more regressive under President Xi Jinping, who has demanded absolute loyalty from a colossal bureaucracy. Local governments must always adhere to the Party’s central command line and carry out its instructions to the letter. As a result, the scope for healthy discussions of sound and flexibility in implementation has shrunk dramatically.
Press freedom and civil society in China are also shrinking rapidly, which could have heralded a crisis early on. Even during the initial outbreak in Wuhan, some relatively outspoken state media published harsh reports and successfully drew attention to problems on the ground, while citizens across China organized themselves to help those in need. But the space for independent reporting and social organization has come under greater pressure over the past two years, as a wave of nationalism has swept the country.
During previous outbreaks, when voices of criticism against harsh lockdown measures emerged online, they were often met with a warning to “think about the bigger picture”, namely the ambitions of the Covid-free country.
But since Xi’an was shut down, more began to think about the sacrifices individuals are being asked to make – and whether they were worth it.
Zhang Wenmin, a former investigative journalist who lives in Xi’an, publicly questioned the official slogan “We must do it at any cost.”
“In this world, no one is an island, the death of any one is the death of all,” she wrote. “The virus has not killed anyone in this city, but there is a real possibility that other things may have.”