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Chinese authorities remain committed to 'zero COVID' lockdown policy


In China, authorities have been doubling down on their so-called zero-COVID policy, meaning they're trying for zero cases and zero deaths. Now, there's been an uptick in cases in Beijing. By global standards, it's a small uptick - about 50 a day. But the government isn't taking chances. It ordered schools closed and mass testing of the city's 22 million occupants. In Shanghai, meanwhile, a sweeping lockdown is causing outpourings of rage, even in a country as tightly controlled as China. To bring us up to speed on all this, we're joined now by NPR's China affairs correspondent John Ruwitch. John, welcome. Thank you for joining us.

JOHN RUWITCH, BYLINE: Hey. Good to be here.

MARTIN: You know, it just seems to me that what's happening in China is amazing. I mean, Shanghai has 26 million people. It's been basically at a standstill for a month. Now Beijing may be poised for a lockdown. Can you just remind us, why are authorities taking this approach?

RUWITCH: Yeah. As you said, the authorities are committed to trying to have zero cases and zero deaths, and it's worked for them. You have to remember that it's been a good policy for them for the past two years, for the most part. I mean, while the rest of the world has been experiencing big spikes and deaths, life in China was relatively normal, and the costs seemed pretty reasonable - right? - to people there. Yeah, there were lockdowns, but they weren't so big or so damaging. And for the Communist Party and Xi Jinping, the leader, they really took it as a boon. They seized upon it and played it up as a win, saying, you know, basically, look how great things are here while the rest of the world is in chaos, you know, implying that we have enlightened leaders who care about the people and implement smart policies that save lives. So what's happening in Shanghai has really highlighted the costs, the rising costs of that policy.

MARTIN: Can I ask you about something there? You're saying that the costs seem reasonable, and life in China was relatively normal. I remember seeing images of people being forcibly dragged from their homes by people in, you know, head-to-toe protective gear.


MARTIN: Forgive me, but how is that normal?

RUWITCH: Yeah. I think what was happening in China up until the omicron wave was that, you know, people realized that these kinds of things were happening. People were being dragged away and taken to, you know, central quarantine centers. It's happening in Shanghai now, but it was happening on a smaller scale. The lockdowns were generally shorter. You know, that sort of - that normal existed for everybody except those who were being taken away, right? And in Shanghai, they've reacted with tough measures. Anyone positive is also being taken away to these central quarantine centers, whether they're symptomatic or not. You know, they're sort of back to square one. And the situation casts a light on messaging about the wisdom of Chinese policies, right? If they're going to have more of these lockdowns, if they're going to be more widespread, if they're going to last longer, what's the point?

MARTIN: And also, in Shanghai, I mean, there were reports about people not having enough food and things of that sort. Can you tell us a bit more about that?

RUWITCH: Shanghai was caught flat-footed. They originally thought that they could handle the pandemic by having very targeted lockdowns of just neighborhoods, of building complexes. That didn't work. They then thought they could split the city in two and do one-half lockdown while the other half was open. They decided quickly that wasn't going to work, so they locked the whole city down. And they just weren't prepared. And so there have been shortages of food and staples, and the flow of that stuff, you know, is much better now. There are areas where, you know, people are able to order food out, are able to get groceries, but it's not perfect yet.

MARTIN: So is there any sign that the government is rethinking its policy?

RUWITCH: Not yet. There have been some tweaks. They're trying to be a bit more nimble, but rhetorically, they're all in. And major changes do seem unlikely in the coming months. Xi Jinping has kind of staked his reputation on zero COVID to a certain extent. The problem is there's a cost, right? People are under lockdown. Those that are or under threat of lockdown are fed up. The economy is taking a hit. Take Apple, for example. The iPhone maker, you know, looks at China as one of its biggest and most important markets. It gets a lot of its devices made there. This week, it reported great earnings for last quarter, but it also warned that the COVID wave in China and the lockdowns could shave $8 billion off its sales this quarter.

MARTIN: This is always so hard to judge in a country where information is controlled, but do you have a sense among people in China about whether they think it's worth it? Do they still think these measures are worth it?

RUWITCH: I think there was that sense, but I think perhaps there's more people now questioning the approach that the government's taking. You know, one indicator has been this absolute outpouring of grief and anger and frustration that we've seen. There have been tons of videos that have popped up online - memes, photos of protest banners, you know, and much of it carries subtle but pretty clear political tones to it. And it's overwhelmed the internet censors in China. I spoke to Xiao Qiang about this. He's an expert in technology and censorship in China at the University of California, Berkeley, and he's actually been amazed by it, which is saying a lot.

XIAO QIANG: I've never seen that much materials on social media during any event, except this Shanghai time.

RUWITCH: The one thing he says was somewhat similar to this happened right at the beginning of the pandemic, when Li Wenliang, who's the doctor who was the whistleblower about the virus - at the time when he died, there was a great outpouring online.

MARTIN: So let's talk about Beijing. They obviously, I would think, want to avoid what happened in Shanghai. Are they going to be able to?

RUWITCH: Everyone's watching to see if they can. You know, they've taken proactive steps. They're, in theory, learning from the lessons of Shanghai. You know, they closed schools, as we mentioned, because some kids had tested positive. They're testing everyone in the city. They're closing neighborhoods. But people are nervous. I spoke with Jaime Chu, who lives in Beijing. She's 29. She works as an editor at an art museum there. And I asked her how she felt when cases started appearing in Beijing and the city said last week that they were going to conduct mass testing.

JAIME CHU: My immediate reaction was first annoyance and then paranoia and anxiety.

RUWITCH: And then became obsessed with this online map where you can look at Beijing and you can see where cases have been, where neighborhood restrictions are put in place, just to see how close they're getting to her.

CHU: And so I've just been basically refreshing this app every couple hours to see how it's spread and where the lockdowns have been showing up and kind of give myself a peace of mind or panic a little more.

RUWITCH: Panic, she says, because she's planning to actually leave Beijing at the end of May. So she's really nervous that if the city gets locked down, that's going to be a lot harder to do. So broadly, what happens in Beijing in the coming days is going to be a test of sorts. Everyone wants to avoid a lockdown, but experts say really, China can't keep playing this whack-a-mole game with the virus. It needs a more flexible policy.

MARTIN: That's NPR China affairs correspondent John Ruwitch. John, thank you so much.

RUWITCH: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF TORO Y MOI SONG, "BEFORE I'M DONE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

John Ruwitch is a correspondent with NPR's international desk. He covers Chinese affairs.

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