Documentary | Will Zero-Covid Become Xi Jinping’s Waterloo?

Shanghai people: Give us food! give us food! give us food!

Simone: Shanghai under the zero-covid lockdown. (V2-SH.mp4)

Narration: The Chinese Communist regime has met with the stiffest resistance from the Shanghainese since the pandemic began last year, but Xi was not moved. 

The National CDC emphasized that we must continue to adhere to the dynamic Zero-Covid policy.

Jennifer:  To Xi, this is not just a battle between zero-covid and co-existing, it is a battle between two social systems, national powers, governance capacities, and even civilizations.

Simone: But what about China’s economy?

Jiang Feng: Similarly, economic downturns, the numbers that come out through the National Bureau of Statistics, can also be created. 

Simone: But going against the synergy of civil resistance, economic meltdown and factious opposition, can Xi Jinping really lock and fake his way out of this crisis?

Simone: Until March 27, Shanghai was still a city to be proud of, especially for its 26 million-strong residents. It is the richest, most open, and most westernized city in China. The Shanghainese have taste, and live a stylish life. When other Chinese cities suffered from strict COVID control measures, Shanghai was the only city that enjoyed relative freedom with its so-called “precise epidemic prevention measure” which focuses control and prevention efforts in a smaller, more precise area. 

But everything changed at midnight on March 27, when the city suddenly announced that it would apply a 2-stage semi-city lockdown starting at 5:00 am on March 28. 

Those who somehow read this midnight announcement had several hours to rush to the supermarkets that were still open to snap up whatever they could get hold of.

In theory, the 2-stage semi-city lockdown worked like this:

The first stage lockdown applied to the Pudong area, while the second stage applied to the Puxi area. The two areas are separated by the Huangpu River that runs through Shanghai. And each lockdown would last for 4 days. 

Although nobody understood the science of why locking down half of the city could prevent the virus from spreading, the half-city lockdown started anyway.

Soon people found themselves detained in the so-called “Fangcang Hospitals” hurriedly set up in exhibition centers, swimming pools, and other places. 

If they didn’t have a bed, they at least had an environmentally friendly paper box to sleep in.

When the “Fangcang Hospitals” were full, they stayed on buses. Those who refused to go were forcefully taken away. Refusing to do testing has also become a crime. And sometimes the arrest became a very violent fight.

And the conditions of some of the quarantine centers are beyond terrible. Sometimes there is only one restroom in the site for 1000 people. Just to put it in perspective, the UN Refugee Agency Emergency Handbook standard is 1 toilet  per 50 people.

The most heart-breaking thing is, babies as young as one month were taken away from their parents and quarantined separately.

Many babies developed skin ulcers because nobody gave them a proper shower or cleaning. Nor did they get diaper changes on time.

Many desperate mothers asked online how they could test positive so that they could be taken away together with their babies. Before her child was taken away for quarantine, one mother desperately kissed the child, licked the spoon the child had used, and ate the apple the child had nibbled on, trying to get herself infected, so that she could be quarantined along with the child.

One father said, every morning after his child brushed his teeth, he asked him to spit twice into a dish, then he and his wife both licked it. 

When he shared his method, he added a smiling Emoji and said, “There are more solutions than difficulties. He is our own child, we don’t feel disgusted.” 

After the planned 2-stage lockdown was over, the authorities announced that the city was under a “City-wide Stay Put” management model. 

For the 26 million people, who suddenly became prisoners in their own homes, the biggest challenges are: 1. Where to get food. 2. How to get treatment when needed.

We saw people risking their lives just to “break” the blockade to get some food; Some people got beaten up for trying to go out to get food, including Huang He, a high profile professor at Fudan University. 

This video shows a desperate mother crying, begging, & reasoning with police officers in their white PPEs for 2 hours as her 2-year-old child is dying of high fever desperately needing to go to the hospital during the lockdown. 

And this video shows a desperate man who just couldn’t find a way to get his family member lying on a stretcher home after she was discharged from the hospital as all public transportation had stopped. 

Ye Peiying, a famous singer, who was best known for the propaganda song “I Love You, China”, died of cerebral hemorrhage during the lockdown.

Lang Xianping is a very active and famous economist in China. His mother died of kidney failure while waiting for her COVID testing report. Without a negative report, she couldn’t be admitted. She waited for 4 hours, and then died right in front of the emergency room of a hospital.

Only 7 days ago, on April 4, Liang Xianping was still praising the “Power of China” for being able to test 25 million people with the support of all of China. 

Apart from deaths for lack of treatment, suicide cases are reported  not only among ordinary citizens, but also among health care officials. 

Qian Wenqiong, director of the Information Center, Hongkou District Health Care Committee, Shanghai, hanged himself in his office on April 12. 

Shanghai authorities declared that the lockdown would be expected to end as early as April 20th. April 20th has come and gone; the lockdown continued. Simone: We can spend more hours talking about the tragedies during the lockdown. But a more important question to ask is: What is the rationale behind such a strict lockdown? According to recently leaked internal meeting minutes of Chinese epidemic prevention experts from April 8, the decision to revert back to the societal zero-covid policy came directly from Beijing after Shanghai’s covid cases soared in mid March. 

Simone: In the meeting notes, the main expert who answered questions claimed one of the important reasons Shanghai’s cases exploded was because there were too many important conferences taking place in that period while Omicron was being spread in communities. He said many political factors interfered. For example, as a benchmark city, Shanghai was not suitable to take disease control measures during the conference season. Therefore critical timing was missed. When the conference season was over, Omicron had already spread widely in Shanghai. 

Simone: What political considerations was the expert referring to? I talked to Jennifer Zeng, a former researcher of the Development Research Center of the State Council in China, about this issue. She is also the host of the Youtube Channel Inconvenient Truth by Jennifer Zeng. Here is what she said.

Jennifer: We all know that in February this year, the Winter Olympics and Paralympics were held in Beijing. Beijing has thus become  the only city in the world that has hosted both a summer and winter Olympics. So for the CCP, ensuring the success of the Beijing Winter Olympics was the most important political task. All other considerations must give way. I think this is the main political consideration the expert was referring to.

Of course, at the beginning of March, the annual so-called Two-Sessions in Beijing were also very important political events, when all the members of People’s Congress and People’s Political Consultative Conference met in Beijing to discuss and decide China’s most important national issues. So the CCP wouldn’t want other issues to interfere with the Two-Sessions either. 

Although both the Winter Olympics and Two-Sessions were in Beijing, however, they were both the most important events for the whole country. If COVID were out of control in Shanghai, for 1, it would divert attention from the Winter Olympics; for 2, it would damage the CCP’s “perfect image” in terms of doing the best job in pandemic prevention and control. For these two reasons, the outbreak must be covered up. 

Simone: Indeed, if Shanghai’s situation did not escalate, China could possibly see a gradual transition out of the zero-covid policy. There had been signs. The most noted one was on March 21: Xi Jinping stated at the meeting of the Standing Committee of the Polibureau, the highest body of the CCP leadership: “Strive to achieve the greatest prevention and control effect at the least cost, and minimize the impact of the epidemic on economic and social development.” 

Simone: The outside world interpreted this as the Party’s top leadership having reached consensus that the zero-covid policy had a major toll on China’s economy; they made Xi Jinping indirectly admit that and indicate the leadership is ready to put an end to it.  But Shanghai gave Xi Jinping a perfect excuse to revert back to it. 

Simone: On April 3, there were 425 new positive cases and 8,581 asymptomatic infections in Shanghai alone according to the official report. This was a big jump from the below one hundred new positive case levels in late March. On the same day, Vice Premier Sun Chunlan went to Shanghai to supervise the pandemic control effort and officially ended Shanghai’s signature “precision prevention and control measure.” 

She ordered: test everyone who should be tested, relocate everyone who should be relocated, admit everyone who needs to be admitted and treat everyone who needs to be treated. Responding to this new order, according to the leaked meeting minutes, Shanghai medical experts simply said: we do not have the resources to do any of these except for the fourth one because most covid patients are asymptomatic and don’t need to be treated. 

Simone: But such opinions could only be expressed at internal meetings. Vice premier Sun Chunlan did not come to listen to experts’ opinions; she came to relay orders from Xi Jinping and pose for photo ops, a photo op that some of the Shanghainese in highrises see very differently from the rest of the country. 

Simone: This is not a game of play house or a movie set, this is Vice premier Sun posing for photos at the roof of a highrise in Shanghai. On it, a miniature community was built with fake roads, a bridge and a pergola to resemble the actual city. Sun stood obediently in front of the camera and listened to so-called reports from Shanghai officials. The whole event was filmed by people from neighboring buildings. Why didn’t she go down to the real city?

Jennifer Zeng: Actually she did, but the protests were everywhere. Both she and Li Qing, the CCP secretary in Shanghai, were confronted by angry public who asked them why people in Shanghai were starving. So perhaps this time local officials and Sun Chunlan wanted to play it safe by faking this piece of news.

But faking a piece of news is the real news here. The real issue is: Who took and released those photos from higher angles to show that Sun Chunlan was just visiting a rooftop? The photos look very professional, and it seems like they were taken with a drone camera. I can hardly imagine that this was done randomly by an ordinary citizen who didn’t know anything about Sun’s visit. Who could have the precise information about Sun’s rooftop visit? I’d say not the general public, but some CCP officials who wanted to embarrass Sun, as well as Xi Jinping, as Sun was sent by Xi. 

Simone: That said, the Party did not take the disorder and the protest lightly. An article from the pro-CCP website called Red Song Party called the battle in Shanghai an “Armageddon”, the final grand duel that will decide the future of the entire nation. 

The article continues by saying, on April 3, the People’s Liberation Army and 100,000 people from 16 provinces and cities all rushed to support Shanghai. All highways, railroads, and airports are operating at their full capacity to get these people to Shanghai on time. It feels like the mobilization of a world war. 

Simone: Why has Xi been so obsessed with the Zero-covid policy?

Jennifer: To Xi, this is not just a battle between zero-covid and co-existing, it is a battle between two social systems, national powers, governance capacities, and even civilizations. He expressed this very clearly at the Beijing Winter Olympics and Paralympics review and awards ceremony on April 8. He called the CCP’s  COVID-19 prevention a “fruitful legacy”. 

He is obviously very proud of the fact that the CCP can “pool all resources to accomplish major tasks”, and said that CCP should be given a gold medal for its successful pandemic control job.

So you see, since Xi Jinping has given himself a “gold medal” for his landmark Zero-COVID policy, it is very hard for him to back down now. This has become his political legacy, and he has to carry it on, at all costs. 

Simone: But this legacy is turning into a liability quickly because not only is his signature zero-covid policy at stake, but more importantly, there seem to be traps on both ends of the tunnel. 

Simone: In the Q&A section of the leaked meeting minutes, the leading experts indicated that the abandonment of the zero-covid policy was inevitable because otherwise the toll on the economy would be too huge. Starting from February this year, there had been discussions of this on the state level. However, the experts said, the coexistence model also comes with a danger: the increase in infection, severe cases and death rate will in turn greatly burden the medical system. 

Simone: The Chinese experts were right about the number of cases going up. Dr. Sean Lin, China expert and former lab director of the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, told me that this had happened everywhere in the world. 

Sean Lin: The Omicron subviriant definitely has brought new wave of infection world wide. Quite often, the new waves are bigger than the previous one caused by other variants in many countries. So for countries like New Zealand, which has very successfully kept the confirmed cases in a low number in the last two years, still suffered more than 80,000 confirmed cases in the last two months. This is because Omicron has much higher transmisible rates than previous variants, almost as fast as measles. So it is common understanding that it is very hard to contain the transmission. 

Simone: Besides the common trend of high infection rate brought by Omicron, some experts believed China’s situation could be worse.  According to China’s Caixin magazine, the Chinese people have lower antibody levels because China’s main prevention and control measure has been locking down cities. The Chinese people did not have the chance to really battle the virus to develop antibodies. Plus China’s vaccine has not been very effective. Therefore, if Zero-covid policy is abandoned, China’s cases will go up significantly, and according to the internal meeting minutes, the experts believed this scenario is not acceptable given China’s current social, political and cultural realities. 

Simone: Why is this politically not acceptable? The experts admitted that the Party’s 20th National Congress is a big reason. Before that meeting, China can’t be seen as failing in the covid prevention and control effort. It will be too big of a blow to the Party’s image. It will shatter the Chinese legend as well as Xi Jinping’s legacy of having successfully led China’s anti-epidemic battle. All of these are not acceptable, especially to Xi Jinping, especially right before his bid for the third term as the country’s supreme leader. Do you notice something? In February and March, there were the Olympics and the CCP’s Two Sessions conference. In October, there will be the Party’s 20th National congress, so there is really no right time for China to look bad in this battle, therefore, the zero-covid policy shall persist. 

Sean Lin: So in order for the lockdown policy work for Omicron, the government will use more and more extreme lockdown policies. Many cities will face hard lockdown even if there are only a few cases of infection because they think we need to do lockdown much earlier than Shanghai so I can prevent a very difficult situation like Shanghai now.

Simone: But if China continues the societal zero-covid policy, that would be too big of a blow to the economy. 

China’s National Bureau of Statistics announced on the 17th that GDP in the first quarter increased by 4.8%, lower than the target of 5.5% for the whole year. In March, industrial production, retail and service industry all decreased up to 3.5% compared to January and February. 

Zhou Jingtong, a researcher at the Bank of China Research Institute, said that China’s economy is facing the greatest difficulty and pressure since the outbreak of the epidemic.

Simone: Such a downward trend hasn’t seen its biggest dip yet. Among two of the icebergs that might crash the Chinese economy, one is the potential removal from the world’s supply chain. Continued draconian measures stalled manufacturing and export, forcing foreign companies to look elsewhere for  substitutes. 

Supply chain migration will force a decoupling of the Chinese economy from the rest of the world. Considering that supply chains have been the biggest contributor to China’s leading position in a globalized economy, losing that advantage is no small matter. But a hit to China’s small-to-medium enterprises, or SMEs, might be an even greater blow to the economy.