A worker in a protective suit walks at an entrance to a tunnel leading to the Pudong area on the first day of the lockdown in eastern Shanghai.
Foto: Aly Song / REUTERS
The brutal lockdown in Shanghai is wreaking havoc on China’s largest city. With millions under lockdown and difficulties delivering food, the crisis is becoming a burden not only for Chinese leader Xi Jinping, but also for the global economy.
“Stand up! Those who refuse to be slaves!” Every child in China knows these words. They make up the first line of the national anthem. The struggle against oppression is the founding myth of the Communist Party .
But on April 18, the line could no longer be used as a hashtag on the Chinese messaging service Weibo. The censors had blocked that particular combination of characters because internet users had used the anthem to vent their anger over restrictions put in place to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
A state that censors its own national anthem – that’s where China now is in the third year of the pandemic. Omicron is forcing the Chinese government to resort to desperate measures. The highly infectious variant has pushed the country’s long-successful zero-COVID strategy to its limits. At the beginning of last week, more than 370 million people in 45 Chinese cities were subject to a partial or full lockdown. The measures have been particularly harsh in Shanghai, the country’s most populous city.
The number of infections there peaked on April 16 at 3,590 symptomatic cases and has only in recent days declined markedly, even though virtually everything has been shut down in the city for more than four weeks. The draconian lockdown is not only endangering China’s economy, but also the global economy. It is also leading many Chinese to increasingly view their state and it’s leadership through different eyes.
Shanghai today is an unsettled, angry city. The goodwill and gratitude with which the population supported the zero-COVID strategy for two years are evaporating as previously privileged city dwellers suddenly go hungry and hundreds of thousands are locked up in isolation camps under undignified conditions. To get an idea of the extent of misery, a single question is often enough: What did you eat today?
“Carrots, onions, white cabbage,” says Wang Dan. The chief economist of the Hang Seng Bank in China is currently having to subsist on government food supplies.
Alexander Weng, founder of the online city magazine Smartshanghai has been eating fried potatoes with fried eggs for days. His refrigerator looks like someone raided a chicken ranch. Eggs, eggs and more eggs – a product of the delivery chaos in the city.
Meanwhile, German consultant Janine Jakob is getting by on cucumber salad with tuna, “plus a glass of mulled wine.” She say she didn’t have much more than that at home.
But that’s not even her biggest problem. Jakob has been living in complete uncertainty since April 3. For days, she hasn’t received any information from the public health authorities. It’s only the guard’s decrepit megaphone that blares across the courtyard. “Please come for testing, please come for testing.” A new day, a new throat swab. The 29-year-old can see her neighbors gathered in rows from the window. Jakob personally isn’t allowed outside her door – she’s stuck in her apartment in central Shanghai waiting for things to somehow carry on again and for her to be admitted to one of the quarantine camps.
March 26 was the day that changed Jakob’s life. It was spring in Shanghai, and the first trees had begun blossoming. That evening, she met with three friends – a Chinese, a Taiwanese and a Canadian, at the Abbey Road bar in the former French Concession. “It was packed,” she says. Even though the authorities had registered an increasing number of Omicron cases in the city in the days before, Jakob hadn’t been worried. A lockdown in Shanghai? Totally unimaginable.
But two days later, the administration sealed off the east of the city. Officials said it was just a precaution and that everything would reopen five days later. On April 1, the western districts were also shut down. It was around that time that Jakob began experiencing a scratchy throat. Her head was pounding. She took aspirin and sat down in front of the computer as she did every day. Jakob has been living in China for four and a half years, she has built up her own company and she gives motivational seminars.
A few days later, men in protective suits knocked on her door and handed over rapid tests. Hers showed two red stripes. She was positive. Just like her three friends she met at Abbey Road. The Chinese man and the Taiwanese woman were picked up by buses after only a few days and taken to collection centers with thousands of beds. The Canadian was next. Jakob says he was in a complete state of desperation. “There are no showers in his camp and the toilets have no doors,” she says.
She packed her suitcase long ago and had her two cats placed in a pet boarding facility. “I said to myself, come on, Janine, you can survive the two weeks of isolation.” But the apparatus apparently forget about her. She has now taken nine rapid tests at home. All have been negative. However, only those who have been in a camp and have two negative PCR tests are considered to have recovered in Shanghai. “And I’m not getting them.” She says her neighbors have threatened to call the police on her if she ventures outside.
What is happening in Shanghai is reawakening memories of Wuhan, back where it all began. One day before the Chinese Spring Festival in 2020, the authorities announced at 2 a.m. that they were sealing off the city. They canceled all flights, express trains no longer stopped in Wuhan, and subway and bus services were suspended. Security forces barricaded the arterial roads. Wuhan became synonymous with the largest epidemiological experiment in history. The city remained sealed off for 76 days, with 11 million people ordered to stay at home.
At the time, the virus was new, and little was known about the disease it caused, its infectiousness and the mortality rate. There was neither a vaccine for COVID nor medications that could effectively treat it. Fear was rampant. The authorities had to act and improvise. It was only natural that some things went wrong and many people had to endure unnecessary hardship.
By the time the curfew had been lifted, Wuhan officially counted 50,008 infected and 2,572 dead. Shanghai has reported a far higher number of infections, but officially, only 25 people have died from COVID. Those who show symptoms are forcibly hospitalized, and the rest are sent to one of the city’s many isolation camps. Or, like Janine Jakob, they are forgotten.
The outbreak in Wuhan began at the Huanan Seafood Market. In Shanghai, it was at the Huating Hotel, an aging building whose ventilation system is said to discharge into the subway shaft of the nearby Shanghai Indoor Stadium station. The hotel reportedly housed travelers from Hong Kong during their quarantine. Abbey Road is three stops away on Line 1.
Some 40,000 doctors and nurses have now been transferred to Shanghai. Their job is to get the virus numbers down, but above all to preserve the myth of the infallibility of the Communist Party. In the past two years, the apparatus has repeatedly suggested to the Chinese that the People’s Republic was the only country in the world that had the coronavirus under control. On state television, you saw the hearses in Bergamo. On the evening news, the announcers would read out the latest death toll from the United States. There was coughing, fever and death everywhere, and it was only in China that one could lead a carefree existence.
For two years, China remained largely free of the coronavirus. In places where measures were imposed, they were often unrelenting, but they also always affected only a fraction of the 1.4 billion Chinese – and they were lifted again after a few weeks. The majority of the population supported that course. Under Omicron conditions, the approach has remained just as harsh, even though fewer people are dying – and the authorities have proven unable to repeat the usual success. What previously passed for expediency now looks more and more like ideology.
Even Zhong Nanshan, the 85-year-old pulmonologist who is the ultimate authority on the coronavirus in China, recently hinted at this. In early April, Zhong published an essay in English stating that China would be unable to sustain its zero-COVID strategy in the long term. He wrote that the country needs to reopen and normalize social and economic development. The censors deleted the article almost as soon as the Chinese version was published.
The reason is that the authorities are basing their measures primarily on political considerations. Leader Xi Jinping’s name is closely associated with the zero-COVID strategy after he elevated it to one of his country’s chief policies. Implementing it at all costs is now seen as a badge of loyalty in a year that is particularly sensitive in political terms: In a break with tradition, Xi is seeking a third term as general secretary at the party congress this autumn.
Millions of people from Shanghai’s upper class and broad middle class have benefited from the system and have acquiesced to the party’s promise: We rule, you get rich. But now that China’s elite are peering into empty refrigerators, that social contract is starting to crack. There hasn’t been this much criticism of the authorities since the fear-filled early days of the pandemic. Social media channels are full of it.
“It’s such a busy city – you can’t just shut it down. That was naive.”
Jessica Yu, an advertising professional in Shanghai
Jessica Yu runs an advertising agency in Shanghai. But for three weeks, she has been locked down in her home with her husband, two sons and her mother. “My mom was really just going to stay for five days and help us out.” That’s how long the lockdown was supposed to last. “It’s such a busy city – you can’t just shut it down. That was naive,” says Yu.
Of course, there have been rules and laws in the past that she didn’t agree with, but there was usually a way around it. With corona, it has been different. Even billionaire Kathy Xu Xin had to send out a call for help using WeChat from her mansion in Shanghai’s Pudong district because she couldn’t get her hands on any break and milk. “We didn’t have enough food either, actually just rice,” says advertising professional Yu. “Then, a few days ago, all of a sudden, lots of deliveries came through. Now, we have too much of everything.” That’s why they’re now having roast pork while others continue to starve.
Before the coronavirus, Shanghai had been very international, Yu says. Local residents pride themselves on their cosmopolitanism and cultural finesse. Proximity to the party may count in Beijing, but in Shanghai, it’s the balance of the bank account that matters – hedonism is given greater weight there than communism. At least that’s how it was until the end of March.
Now, Yu says, the city has become as bureaucratic as Beijing. At the beginning of April, the central government took full control. The battle against Omicron is being led by Vice Premier Sun Chunlan. Wherever she has made an appearance in recent years, roads have been cordoned off, schools closed and mass tests ordered. Sun is considered the personification of the lockdowns.
It’s not as if there was no alternative available – the authorities had more than two years to prepare. The fact that the Chinese leadership is still adhering to the zero-COVID strategy is also due to the fact that it has done a poor job with its vaccination campaign of reaching the elderly in particular: 130 million Chinese over the age of 60 have no or inadequate vaccination protection. In Shanghai, just under 38 percent of residents in this age group have received three doses of vaccine. Moreover, out of national pride, China has not yet approved any of the mRNA vaccines developed in the West. Nor has it brought one of its own to the market yet.
In mid-April, authorities announced some relief. They said that people who live in a housing complex where there hasn’t been a positive case reported for 14 days straight can at least stretch their legs a little in the neighborhood. But if a single new infection is discovered, the entire neighborhood has to be quarantined again for two weeks. Even though the authorities announced last Wednesday that they had released millions of Shanghai residents from lockdown, their freedom of movement remains restricted and can be taken away again at any time. In addition, many neighborhood committees simply aren’t implementing the announced relaxation of the lockdown policies.
Alexander Weng of Germany and his wife managed to enjoy four hours of freedom before one of the guards tested positive. They’ve been forced to stay at home again ever since. “Our housing complex has 18 buildings, each of them with 20 floors – there must be 6,000 people living here. Getting to zero cases is almost impossible.”
Weng says that until a few weeks ago, few in Shanghai ever noticed that things like neighborhood committees even existed. Now he knows: They are hopelessly overburdened and can hardly keep up with the distribution of food. Food is almost only available through group orders because the overstretched delivery services prefer to deliver in large quantities. “My wife has been on her mobile phone all day now. There are groups for cat food, toilet paper or eggs. You have to order everything separately.” And for the entire residential complex.
A few days ago, someone got ahold of 500 croissants. After that came the eggs, and Weng now has at least 100 of them in the refrigerator. “The alternative would have been no eggs at all,” he says.
Many Shanghai residents have contacts abroad and are fully aware that the Chinese approach isn’t the only possible way to respond to the virus. Residents in Pudong have clashed with police officers in white protective suits because they refused to put up with several buildings in their housing complex being commandeered as isolation wards. They post videos of such incidents not only on Weibo and WeChat, where the censors can quickly track them down and delete them. Many people in Shanghai also use Twitter or Facebook, which they can access with a VPN, a network connection that allows them to bypass China’s “Great Firewall.”
Adding to the anger is the fact that the economy of the city and the country is suffering massively. Economist Wang Dan, for example, hasn’t been at her workplace at Hang Seng Bank in Shanghai’s financial district for five weeks now. From home, she is now working even more than she normally would – because the lockdown means a lot of work for those whose job it is to make economic predictions.
In 2021, the city of Shanghai alone generated the equivalent of almost 570 billion euros, as much as the whole of Poland. No port in the world processes more containers than Shanghai, and more than 10 percent of trade between China and the rest of the world flows through the city. In terms of the value of the companies listed there, only New York and London surpass the city’s stock exchange. Around 800 multinational corporations have their regional headquarters in Shanghai.
Volkswagen and General Motors produce cars there, Qualcomm and TSCM semiconductors, Pegatron and Quanta make components for Apple. All of this has been frozen by the authorities. And, given that Shanghai is a hub for all of China, factories in other parts of the country have also ground to a halt because of a lack of important upstream products.
The lockdown will eventually be lifted, but the damage to the economy will persist. No matter which manager, association head or economist you speak to, hardly anyone still believes that the 5.5 percent economic growth announced by Premier Li Keqiang for 2022 is possible.
As a financial center, Wang Dan says, Shanghai is “completely frozen.” Bankers locked up at home are focusing on a few deals with particularly large volumes. New listings on the market have been suspended.
The distortions are no less severe in the real economy, either. This is perhaps most evident in the logistics branch: The Port of Shanghai remains open, but hundreds of container ships are waiting at sea to be unloaded. There’s a shortage of truck drivers. Many can’t get through, and some are trapped on highways that have been closed.
The “Caixin” Purchasing Managers’ Index, which tracks the economic expectations of industry and service providers, plunged from 50.1 points to 43.9 points in March – with a value below 50 indicating a decline in economic activity. According to a survey conducted by the American Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai in late March, 99 percent of participating companies said their business was suffering as a result of measures to contain the coronavirus. “We are in a state of free fall,” says Jörg Wuttke, president of the European Union Chamber of Commerce in China.
“China’s growth potential is being demolished by the COVID policy,” says Jens Hildebrandt, managing director of the German Chamber of Commerce in Beijing. On Friday, April 15, China’s Industry Ministry did announce relief measures for several sectors, but it is unlikely they will do enough to resolve the deep uncertainty in the business community. In light of the geopolitical tensions, corporate headquarters are already discussing their China strategies, anyway, says Hildebrandt. “It will be hard for China to prove that it remains an attractive place to do business.”
Many of the foreigners employed by international companies have already formed their opinions. “The mood has absolutely hit rock bottom,” Hildebrandt says. According to one non-representative online survey, nearly half of foreigners in Shanghai are considering leaving China within the next 12 months. “Companies will find it incredibly difficult to replace people, because Shanghai has become completely unattractive for the time being,” says Ralph Koppitz, a business lawyer who has been based in China since 1997 and advises international corporations.
Consultant Jakob had actually planned to stay in China for a few more years. But the lockdown has made her reconsider. She has already researched work opportunities in Malaysia, Thailand, Dubai and Vietnam. If possible, she would like to leave the country before her 30th birthday in July.
This isn’t the first time that a political campaign has brought suffering to China. During Mao Zedong’s disastrous failed industrialization program in the late 1950s, peasants melted down their plows to make steel during the “Great Leap Forward.” Instead of working the fields, they stood at the blast furnaces. Harvests failed. At the time, the propaganda apparatus found other culprits: Sparrows that allegedly ate the seeds, for example, and the Chinese were asked to eradicate these “rats of the air.” They did this so successfully that, a little later, a plague of insects devastated agricultural production and up to 45 million Chinese starved to death.
A top Chinese official, Xi Zhongxun, later claimed to have ended the insanity of the zero-sparrow policy. Now, responsibility for ending the zero-COVID strategy rests with his son: Xi Jinping.