Context: The article examines the reasons for the recent mass protests in China and sheds light on China’s dynamic zero-COVID-19 strategy.
About China’s “dynamic zero-COVID-19” strategy
* As vast swathes of China got infected with more transmissible Covid variants, the measures to tackle them also became harsher.
* The dynamic zero-COVID-19 policy calls for mass testing, lockdowns and quarantining of close contacts to eliminate outbreaks in the shortest possible time.
* It involves various steps as follows: * The government regulates the entry and exit of non-residents to prevent transmission of infections from outside.
* In case of an outbreak, there is a localized lockdown followed by free and universal testing. All those infected in the cluster are institutionally treated free of cost. * During this localized lockdown, essential needs such as food and healthcare are met through a dedicated and trained team of activists. * Universal masking and universal and free vaccination are undertaken.
* Positive impact of the policy: * The outbreaks are quickly controlled, number of deaths decreased significantly and the duration of localized lockdowns become relatively short.
* By rapidly eliminating infections prevents the rise of new variants that may prolong the pandemic and is thus socially optimal.
* Criticism: As per the reports, 33 cities and an estimated 65 million people in China were under lockdown from September 2022.
Reasons for protests in China
* Harsher measures to contain Covid infection: * Internal travel within China has become a risky exercise, with each city having its own health code app and internal quarantine rules.
* The residents also have to take a PCR test every 72 hours, without which they cannot access schools, hospitals, offices or public transport.
* Also, for the first time since the Mao era, the Chinese people need government permission to renew passports and leave the country.
* Bureaucracy possessing excessive powers: A new pandemic-centred bureaucracy has gained control over local-level governance in China and official power is at its highest in decades. * For instance, the local-level officials and neighbourhood committees in China have gained power to indefinitely confine residents in their homes or to close businesses by citing the pandemic.
* Other examples of excessive state power include welding doors shut to prevent people from leaving.
* Misuse of power: The provincial authorities in China are being found accused of tampering with citizen apps to prevent them from gathering. * For example, people converged at a train station in Zhengzhou province recently to protest against a financial fraud found their health codes turned red by tinkering data which meant immediate quarantine.
* Also recently in Zhengzhou’s Foxconn iPhone factory, workers scaled walls and jumped fences to escape amid rumours that they were to be a part of a “Covid experiment camp” to see whether they survived or died.
* Economic slowdown: Uncertainty over lockdowns has weakened business sentiment in the face of an already impending property market, which is a keystone of growth in China. For example, in the second quarter of 2022, China’s economy grew only by 0.4%.
WHO’s warning: The World Health Organisation (WHO) recently has severely criticized China’s much-touted dynamic zero COVID policy and termed it unsustainable in view of the constantly changing behaviour of the coronavirus and called on Beijing to change its strategy.
Despite protests why China continuing with “dynamic zero-Covid” policy
* Initial successes: Within China, through 2020 and 2021, the zero-COVID strategy was widely popular as it ensured a degree of normal life and saved thousands of lives while the rest of the world was dealing with waves of deaths and lockdowns. * Also, China largely emerged from the pandemic’s first wave in 2020 quicker than most nations, with its stringent lockdowns and bans on international travel paying dividends.
* This resulted in resumption of manufacturing activities, also flourishing China’s exports.
* Changed circumstances: Today, as China is confronting more transmissible variants, the ‘test and trace’ strategy of zero-COVID has struggled.
* Failed narrative: Chinese president Xi Jinping had put his faith in a “China Dream”, built by the Chinese themselves against Covid. * However, the efficacy of indigenously-made Chinese vaccines using an older, inactivated virus remained poor leading to massively rising Covid cases across China.
* In 2020, there was widespread support for Xi’s battle cry of “people’s war” against Covid. However, it was undone by arbitrary, exaggerated interpretation of “zero-Covid.”
* Though China has spent an estimated $240 billion (1.5% of GDP) on Covid testing, the risk for the Chinese state and President Xi is that the people’s protest against the state grows more intense than the fight against Covid.