China’s “zero COVID” policy has a dedicated following: millions of people who work diligently toward that goal, no matter the human cost.
In the northwestern city of Xi’an, hospital staff refused to admit a man with chest pain because he lived in a moderate-risk district. He died of a heart attack.
They informed a woman who was eight months pregnant and bleeding profusely that her COVID test was not valid. He lost his child.
Two community security guards told a young man that they did not care that he had nothing to eat after apprehending him during the lockdown. They beat him up.
The Xi’an government was swift and firm in enforcing a strict lockdown in late December, when cases were on the rise. But it was unwilling to provide food, medical care and other necessities to the city’s 13 million residents, causing chaos and distress since the country first locked down Wuhan in January 2020.
China’s early success in containing the pandemic through iron fist, authoritarian policies encouraged its officials, seemingly licensed to act with conviction and religiosity. Many officials now believe that they must do everything within their power to ensure zero COVID infections as it is the will of their top leader, Xi Jinping.
For officials, virus control comes first. Life, welfare and dignity of people comes much later.
The government has the help of a vast army of community activists who carry out the policy with the fervor and mob of nationalists online who attack anyone who complains or expresses concern. The tragedies in Xi’an have led some Chinese to question how people enforcing quarantine rules could behave like this and to ask who has the ultimate responsibility.
“It’s too easy to blame the bad guys,” wrote a user @IWillNotResistIt on Chinese social media platform Weibo. “If you and I become the screws in this giant machine, we may not be able to resist its mighty pull.”
The “restriction of evil” is a concept that Chinese intellectuals often apply in moments like Xi’an. It was coined by the philosopher Hannah Arendt, who wrote that Adolf Eichmann, one of the main architects of the Holocaust, was an ordinary man, driven by “an extraordinary diligence in the pursuit of his personal advancement”.
How many officials and citizens of the Chinese intelligentsia – often motivated by professional ambition or obedience – are willing to become supporters of authoritarian policies.
When the coronavirus emerged in Wuhan two years ago, it exposed the weaknesses of China’s authoritarian system. Now, with patients dying of non-Covid diseases, residents starving and officials pointing fingers, the lockdown in Xi’an has shown how the country’s political system has stymied its single-minded pursuit of a zero-Covid policy. has brought a ruthlessness to ,
Xi’an, the capital of Shaanxi province, is in much better shape than Wuhan in early 2020, when thousands of people died of the virus affecting the city’s medical system. Xi’an has reported only three COVID-related deaths, the last in March 2020. The city said 95 percent of its adults had been vaccinated by July. In the latest wave, it had reported 2,017 confirmed cases as of Monday and no deaths.
Still, it imposed a very stringent lockdown. Residents were not allowed to leave their premises. Some buildings were locked. More than 45,000 people were taken to quarantine facilities.
The city’s health code system, which is used to track people and enforce quarantines, collapsed under heavy use. The distribution largely disappeared. Some residents complained on the Internet that they did not have enough food.
But the rules of lockdown were strictly followed.
Some community volunteers read a self-criticism letter to a young man who had gone out to buy food in front of a video camera. According to the widely shared video, “I only cared about whether I had food to eat.” “I did not take into account that my behavior could have serious consequences for the community.” According to The Beijing News, a state media outlet, the volunteers later apologized.
Three people were caught while fleeing Xi’an into the countryside, possibly to avoid the high cost of the lockdown. They went hiking, biked and swam during the chilly day and night. According to local police and media reports, two of them were taken into custody by the police. Together they were called “Xi’an Ironmen” on the Chinese Internet.
Then there were hospitals that denied patients access to medical care and the opportunity to say goodbye to their loved ones.
The man who had suffered chest pain from a heart attack waited six hours before being admitted to the hospital. After her condition deteriorated, her daughter begged the hospital staff to let her inside and see her one last time.
According to a video posted on Weibo after the death of his father, a male employee refused. “Don’t try to kidnap me morally,” he said in the video. “I’m just doing my duty.”
Some low-level Xi’an officials were punished. The head of the city’s health commission apologized to the woman who had an abortion. The general manager of the hospital has been suspended. Last Friday, the city announced that no medical facility can reject patients based on COVID tests.
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But that was about it. Even the state broadcaster, China Central Television, commented that some local officials were only blaming their subordinates. It seemed, the broadcaster wrote, that only low-level activists have been punished for these problems.
There are reasons why people in the system showed little compassion and some spoke online.
An emergency room doctor in eastern Anhui province was sentenced last year to 15 months in prison for failing to follow epidemic control protocols by treating a patient with a fever, according to CCTV.
A deputy director-level official at a government agency in Beijing lost his position last week after some social media users pointed out that an article he wrote about the lockdown in Xi’an contained untrue information.
In the article, he called the lockdown measures “inhuman” and “brutal”. The title is “The Grief of Xi’an Residents: Why Fleeing from Xi’an at Risk of Breaking the Law and Death.”
Since Wuhan, the Chinese Internet has grown into a narrow platform for nationalists to praise China, the government, and the Communist Party. Any disagreement or criticism is not tolerated with online complaints about 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 of her account.
In Xi’an, there is no writer like Fang Feng writing his Wuhan lockdown diary, no citizen journalist like Chen Qiushi, Fang Bin or Zhang Zhan posting videos. All four of them have either been silenced, detained, banished or left to die in prison – send a strong message to anyone who dares to speak up about Xi’an Used to be.
The only widely circulated, in-depth article about the Xi’an lockdown was written by former journalist Zhang Wenmin, a Xi’an resident, better known by his pen name Jiang Xue. Her article has since been deleted, and state security officials have warned her not to speak further on the matter, according to a person close to her. Some social media users called him garbage which should be thrown out.
According to people familiar with the situation, some Chinese publications that wrote excellent investigative articles from Wuhan did not send reporters to Xi’an because they could not secure passes to move freely under lockdown.
The Xi’an lockdown debacle has persuaded many in China to abandon the country’s no-holds-barred approach to epidemic control.
A former athlete, who is disabled and suffering from multiple ailments, cursed Fang Fang for his Wuhan diary in 2020. Last month, he posted on his Weibo account that he could not buy the drug because his premises in Xi’an were closed. His problems were solved, and he now uses the hashtag #everyoneinpositiveenergy and retweeted posts attacking former journalist Ms. Zhang.
Despite declaring the city’s battle with the virus as a victory last week, the government is not relying on a lot of rules, and is setting a very high bar for ending the lockdown. Shaanxi’s party secretary told Xi’an officials on Monday that their future epidemic control efforts should remain “strict”.
“A needle-shaped loophole can funnel high wind,” he said.
Claire Fu Contributed to research.