Cindy Yu

Even the WHO has turned on China’s zero-Covid strategy

Even the WHO has turned on China's zero-Covid strategy
World Health Organisation Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus (Getty images)
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Covid infections are finally falling in Shanghai. The city reported just over 2,000 cases on Tuesday, down from over 27,000 at its peak a month ago. Yet instead of regaining their freedom, locals have been hit by tighter lockdown restrictions. Even the World Health Organisation, which typically shies away from criticising China, is urging Beijing to rethink its approach. Its director Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said he does not think China’s Covid policy is 'sustainable considering the behaviour of the virus'. But President Xi Jinping is blocking his ears.

Over the weekend, reports emerged of people in Shanghai being taken into quarantine simply for living in the same building as positive cases. The hashtag ‘One person tests positive, whole block gets quarantined’ went viral on Weibo. In some areas, local authorities have reportedly started a so-called ‘quiet period’ where even delivery drivers are not allowed to drop off food, while others are breaking through doors to get to residents who refuse to budge.

But despite the growing anger in Shanghai – and the criticism from the WHO – China's Politburo standing committee has doubled down on zero Covid. In a statement last week, it said: 'Perseverance is victory':

‘Practice has proved that our prevention and control policy is determined by the nature and purpose of the Party, our prevention and control policies can stand the test of history, and our prevention and control measures are scientific and effective.'

Politics, not science, now appears to be driving the mind-boggling tightening of Shanghai's restrictions as infections fall. Xi cannot countenance a U-turn and ambitious apparatchiks lower down the rungs are keen to please him. Shanghai's party secretary Li Qiang had been tipped to become the new Chinese premier this autumn (Xi Jinping’s de facto deputy), but that was before Shanghai’s Covid shambles made headlines around the world. Promotion is out of the question now. Li's hope is that he might still save his career, only if he follows the Politburo's instructions to the letter.

After Xi met the Politburo standing committee, the Shanghai party committee under Li Qiang held its own meeting just hours later, resolving to ‘transmit the spirit of the standing committee meeting’. A statement it released shortly afterwards made it clear that Papa Xi's Covid strategy isn't going away:

‘Under the firm leadership of the Chinese communist party with Comrade Xi Jinping at its core, with the support of the whole country, the whole city must grit our teeth, determine our target, keep pressing on, strike while the iron is hot, and we can definitely claim victory over the great defensive battle for Shanghai’. 

Barely two days later, ordinary citizens who’d never even come in contact with a positive case were being taken into quarantine. 

Even card-carrying members of the CCP are outraged. Professor Tong Zhiwei, a constitutional lawyer at a Shanghai university and a CCP member himself, went viral on Sunday when he published a letter calling for an end to ‘excessive pandemic prevention’ in order to avoid a ‘legal catastrophe’. It was signed by over 20 academics. The professor pointed out that it was illegal and unconstitutional to forcibly move people into quarantine when the country’s highest authorities had not declared a state of emergency. His Weibo account (400,000 followers) and the letter itself have now been censored.

Meanwhile in Beijing, which is facing its own battle with Omicron, there are growing signs of unease about zero Covid. Cases appear to be under control at the moment, but schools and some non-essential shops are already closed. CCP cheerleader Hu Xijin, who was editor of the nationalistic tabloid the Global Times until last year, took to Weibo to question this strategy:

‘I fervently hope that Beijing can be a breakthrough in pandemic control. Zero Covid is very important, but it will only be meaningful if we can afford the costs of zero Covid… If Beijing cannot control Omicron with this method, and the virus continues to spread, then I feel that Beijingers have to accept that cruel reality, and the country must also. We definitely cannot continue to use infinite lockdowns… to maintain the low transmission of Covid.’

Hu’s post was deleted. But the well-connected journalist’s post raises a question: how split is the CCP over Xi’s zero Covid agenda? Last week’s Standing Committee memo felt it necessary to explicitly warn: 

‘We must resolutely struggle against all words and deeds that distort, doubt and deny our epidemic prevention policies'. 

These words are aimed at the growing number of Chinese willing to speak out against zero Covid. But how long can the government continue to silence its critics? The absurdity of the situation has been unwittingly but perfectly summed up by one angry policeman. In a confrontation with residents in Shanghai who were refusing to be quarantined, the hazmat suited copper shouted

‘Stop asking me why. There is no why.’

Written byCindy Yu

Cindy Yu is broadcast editor of The Spectator and presenter of our Chinese Whispers podcast. She was brought up in Nanjing and has a masters in Chinese Studies from Oxford University.

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