China’s “zero COVID” policy has the following dedicated: millions of people are working hard to achieve this goal, regardless of the human costs.
In the northwestern city of Xi’an, hospital staff refused to accept a man with chest pain because he lived in a medium-risk area. He died of a heart attack.
They told a woman who was eight months pregnant and bleeding that her Covid test was invalid. She lost her child.
Two community security guards told a young man that they didn’t care that he had nothing to eat after he caught him during lockdown. They hit him.
The Xi’an government was quick and resolute in imposing a strict lockdown in late December when cases were on the rise. But it was not prepared to provide food, medical care and other necessities to the city’s 13 million residents, causing chaos and crises not seen since the country first closed down Wuhan in January 2020.
China’s early success in containing the epidemic through authoritarian and iron-fisted policies emboldened its officials, seemingly giving them license to act with conviction and rectitude. Many officials now believe they must do everything they can to ensure there are no Covid-19 infections given that this is the will of their supreme leader, Xi Jinping.
For administrators, antivirus comes first. People’s lives, well-being and dignity come far behind.
The government has the help of a huge army of community workers who zealously implement politics and legions of online nationalists who attack anyone who raises grievances or concerns. The tragedies in Xi’an have prompted some Chinese to question how those who enforce quarantine rules in this way and ask who bears the ultimate responsibility.
“It is very easy to blame individuals who have done the banality of evil,” wrote a user called IWillNotResistIt on Chinese social media platform Weibo. “If you and I become the nails in this gigantic machine, we may not be able to resist its strong pull either.”
“The banality of evil” is a concept often invoked by Chinese intellectuals at moments like Xi’an. It was coined by philosopher Hannah Arendt, who wrote that Adolf Eichmann, one of the principal architects of the Holocaust, was an ordinary man who was motivated by “extraordinary diligence in the search for his own personal advancement”.
Chinese intellectuals are amazed at the number of officials and civilians—often motivated by professional ambition or obedience—willing to be enablers of authoritarian politics.
When the coronavirus emerged in Wuhan two years ago, it exposed the weaknesses of China’s authoritarian regime. Now, with patients dying of non-Covid illnesses, and starvation among residents and officials pointing fingers, the lockdown in Xi’an has shown how the country’s political apparatus has ossified, ruthless in its resolute pursuit of a no-Covid policy. .
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, overwhelming the city’s medical system. The city of Xi’an has reported just three Covid-related deaths, the most recent in March 2020. The city said 95 percent of adults had been vaccinated by July. In the latest wave, it had reported 2017 confirmed cases as of Monday and no deaths.
However, it has imposed a very severe lockdown. Residents were not allowed to leave their compounds. Some buildings have been closed. More than 45,000 people have been transferred to quarantine facilities.
The city’s health code system, which is used to track people and enforce quarantines, has collapsed under heavy use. Deliveries have largely disappeared. Some residents have taken to the Internet to complain that they do not have enough food.
But the closing rules were strictly followed.
Some community volunteers have a young man venturing out to buy food read a self-critical letter in front of a video camera. “I only cared if I had food to eat,” the young man read, according to a widely shared video. “I did not take into account the serious consequences that my behavior could have on society.” The volunteers later apologized, according to state media, Beijing News.
Three men were arrested while fleeing Xi’an into the countryside, possibly to avoid the high costs of closing. They hiked, cycled, and swam on winter days and nights. Police detained two of them, according to local police and media reports. Together they are called the “Iron Men of Xi’an” on the Chinese Internet.
Then there are the hospitals that deny patients medical care and their loved ones the chance to say goodbye.
The man who suffered chest pains while dying of a heart attack waited six hours before he was finally admitted to the hospital. After his condition worsened, his daughter begged the hospital staff to let her in and see him one last time.
A male employee refused, according to a video she posted on Weibo after her father’s death. “Don’t try to kidnap me morally,” he said in the video. “I’m just doing my homework.”
A few low-ranking Xi’an officials were punished. The head of the city’s health authority apologized to the woman who had an abortion. The hospital’s general manager has been suspended. The city announced last Friday that no medical facility can refuse patients based on Covid tests.
But that was about it. Even state radio, China Central Television, commented that some local officials were simply blaming their own followers. The radio wrote that it seemed that only junior cadres were punished for these problems.
There are reasons why the people in the system showed so little empathy and so few spoke online.
An emergency room doctor in eastern Anhui Province has been sentenced to 15 months in prison for failing to follow epidemic control protocols by treating a patient with a fever last year, according to CCTV.
A deputy director-level official at a government agency in Beijing lost his position last week after some social media users reported that an article he wrote about the shutdown in Xi’an contained incorrect information.
In the article, he described the lockdown measures as “inhumane” and “cruel”. Carrying the headline “Xian people’s grief: why they turned away from Xi’an in danger of breaking the law and dying.”
Since Wuhan, the Chinese Internet has turned into a narrow-minded platform for nationalists to praise China, the government and the Communist Party. No dissent or criticism is tolerated, with grievances attacked online to provide ammunition for hostile foreign media.
Social media platform Red has censored a post of the daughter of the man who died of a heart attack because it “contains negative information about society,” according to a screenshot on her account.
In Xi’an, no author like Fang Fang writes her memoirs of the Wuhan lockdown, and none of the citizen journalists Chen Qiushi, Fang Bin or Zhang Zhan publish videos. The four of them were silenced, detained, disappeared, or left to die in prison – sending a powerful message to anyone who would dare to speak publicly about Sheyan.
The only in-depth and widely circulated article on the closure of Xi’an was written by former journalist Zhang Wenmin, a Xi’an resident known by his pen name, Jiang Xue. Her article has since been deleted and state security officers have warned her not to talk more about the topic, according to a person close to her. Some social media users described it as rubbish to be taken out.
A few Chinese publications that wrote excellent investigative articles from Wuhan did not send reporters to Xi’an because they could not secure permits to walk freely under lockdown, according to people familiar with the situation.
It seems that the lockdown disaster in Xi’an has not convinced many people in China to abandon the country’s no-restriction approach to fighting epidemics.
A former athlete with a disability and suffering from a series of diseases cursed Fang Fang over her diary in Wuhan in 2020. Last month, he posted on his Weibo account that he could not buy the drug because his compound in Xi’an was closed. His issues have been resolved, and he is now using the hashtag #everyoneinpositiveenergy and Twitter posts attacking Ms. Chang, the former journalist.
Despite the city’s battle with the virus being declared a victory last week, the government is not relying on too many rules, and is setting a very high standard for ending the lockdown. Shaanxi’s party secretary told Xi’an officials on Monday that their future efforts to control the epidemic must remain “resolute.”
“A gap in the size of the needle could direct high winds,” he said.
Claire Vogue Contribute to research.