China’s “zero Covid” policy has its adherents: millions of people who are working hard to achieve this goal, regardless of the loss of life.
In the northwestern city of Xi’an, hospital staff refused to admit a man suffering from chest pains because he lived in a medium-risk area. He died of a heart attack.
They informed a bleeding woman eight months pregnant that her Covid test was invalid. She lost a child.
Two local guards told the young man that they didn’t care that he hadn’t eaten anything after they caught him during the lockdown. They beat him up.
The Xi’an government quickly and decisively imposed a strict lockdown in late December as the number of cases soared. But he was not prepared to provide food, medical care and other essentials to the city’s 13 million residents, creating chaos and crises not seen since the country first shut down Wuhan in January 2020.
China’s early success in containing the pandemic through tough authoritarian policies has emboldened its officials, seemingly empowering them to act with conviction and righteousness. Many officials now believe they must do everything in their power to ensure zero Covid infections, as such is the will of their top leader, Xi Jinping.
For officials, the fight against viruses is in the first place. The life, well-being and dignity of people come much later.
The government has the help of a huge army of public workers who zealously enforce policies and hordes of online nationalists who attack anyone who expresses discontent or concern. The tragedies in Xi’an have prompted some Chinese to question how those enforcing quarantine rules can behave like this and ask who is ultimately responsible.
“It is very easy to blame people who have committed banal evil,” wrote a user under the nickname @IWillNotResistIt on the Chinese social network Weibo. “If you and I become screws in this gigantic machine, we may not be able to resist its powerful pull either.”
“The banality of evil” is a term often used by Chinese intellectuals at moments like Xi’an. It was coined by the philosopher Hannah Arendt, who wrote that Adolf Eichmann, one of the main organizers of the Holocaust, was an ordinary person who was driven by “extraordinary zeal in the pursuit of personal advancement.”
Chinese intellectuals are amazed at how many bureaucrats and civilians, often driven by professional ambition or obedience, are ready to become the agents of authoritarian politics.
When the coronavirus emerged in Wuhan two years ago, it exposed the weaknesses of China’s authoritarian system. Now, with patients dying from unrelated illnesses, residents starving, and officials pointing fingers, the lockdown in Xi’an has shown how the country’s political apparatus has ossified, injecting ruthlessness into its single-minded pursuit of a Covid zero policy. .
Xi’an, the capital of Shaanxi Province, is in a much better position than Wuhan was in early 2020, when thousands of people died from a virus that hit the city’s medical system. Xi’an has only reported three deaths from Covid, the last of which occurred in March 2020. The city said that by July, 95 percent of its adults had been vaccinated. In the latest wave, by Monday, there were 2,017 confirmed cases and no deaths.
However, he imposed a very strict quarantine. Residents were not allowed to leave their settlements. Some buildings were closed. More than 45,000 people have been transferred to quarantine facilities.
The city’s health code system, which is used to track people and enforce quarantines, has collapsed due to heavy use. Supplies have practically disappeared. Some residents have taken to the Internet to complain that they don’t have enough food.
But the rules of self-isolation were strictly observed.
Several community volunteers had a young man who decided to buy food read a letter of self-criticism in front of a video camera. “I only cared if I had food,” the young man read in a widely shared video. “I did not take into account the serious consequences that my behavior could bring to the community.” The volunteers later apologized, state media The Beijing News reported.
The three men were caught escaping Xi’an into the countryside, possibly to avoid the high cost of isolation. They walked, cycled and swam during the winter days and nights. According to local police and media reports, two of them were detained by the police. Together, they were dubbed the “Xian Iron Men” on the Chinese Internet.
Then there were hospitals that denied patients access to medical care and denied their loved ones the opportunity to say goodbye.
The man, who suffered from chest pains as he died of a heart attack, waited six hours before he was finally admitted to the hospital. After his condition worsened, his daughter begged the hospital staff to let her in and see him one last time.
The male employee refused, according to a video she posted on Weibo following her father’s death. “Don’t try to hijack me mentally,” he said in the video. “I’m just doing my duty.
Several low-level Xi’an officials were punished. The head of the city health commission apologized to the woman who had a stillbirth. The general director of the hospital was suspended from work. The city announced last Friday that no healthcare facility could turn away patients based on Covid tests.
Coronavirus pandemic: what you need to know
But that was about it. Even the state broadcaster, China Central Television, noted that some local officials are simply blaming their subordinates. It seemed, the broadcaster wrote, that only low-level personnel were being punished for these problems.
There are reasons why people in the system have shown little empathy and few have spoken out online.
An emergency room doctor in eastern Anhui province was sentenced to 15 months in prison for failing to follow pandemic control protocols while treating a patient with a fever last year, according to CCTV.
Last week, the deputy director of a government agency in Beijing lost his position after some social media users reported that an article he wrote about the Xi’an quarantine contained false information.
In the article, he called the quarantine measures “inhumane” and “cruel”. It carried the headline “Woe to the people of Xi’an: why they fled Xi’an at the risk of breaking the law and dying.”
After Wuhan, the Chinese Internet has become a local platform for nationalists praising China, the government and the Communist Party. No dissent or criticism is tolerated, and online discontent is criticized for providing ammunition for hostile foreign media.
Social media platform Red censored a post by the daughter of a man who died of a heart attack because “it contained negative information about society,” according to a screenshot on her account.
In Xi’an, there is no author like Fang Fang writing his Wuhan quarantine diary, no citizen journalist like Chen Qiushi, Fang Bin or Zhang Zhang posting videos. Four of them were either silenced, detained, went missing, or left to die in prison, sending a strong message to anyone who dares to speak out about Xi’an.
The only widely circulated detailed article about the Xi’an quarantine was written by former journalist Zhang Wenmin, a Xi’an resident known under the pseudonym Jiang Xue. Her article has since been removed and security officials have warned her not to speak about it again, according to a person close to her. Some social media users called her trash to be taken out.
According to people familiar with the situation, several Chinese outlets that wrote excellent investigative articles from Wuhan did not send reporters to Xi’an because they could not get a pass to travel freely under the lockdown.
The fiasco in Xi’an did not appear to have convinced many people in China to abandon the country’s cutthroat approach to fighting the pandemic.
The former athlete, who is disabled and suffers from a number of illnesses, cursed Fang Fang for her diary in Wuhan in 2020. Last month, he posted on his Weibo account that he couldn’t buy medicine because his complex in Xi’an was blocked. His issues have been resolved and he now uses the hashtag #everyoneinpositiveenergy and retweets posts attacking Ms. Zhang, a former journalist.
Even though the city’s battle against the virus was declared a victory last week, the government is not abandoning most of the rules and is setting the bar very high for ending the lockdown. Shaanxi provincial party secretary told Xi’an officials on Monday that their future efforts to fight the pandemic must remain “strict”.
“A loophole the size of a needle can channel strong winds,” he said.
Claire Fu contributed to research.