◎ Xi’an is just one of Beijing’s latest COVID headaches.
Since Wuhan in 2020, Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) have relied on lockdowns and a “zero-COVID” policy in dealing with coronavirus outbreaks in China. Party propaganda then rolls out unconvincing data reflecting extremely low cases and deaths. Propaganda outlets also constantly brag that the CCP’s epidemic control measures, with its “efficiency” and the “smallest social cost,” have won it “new victories” against the virus.
Continued outbreaks over the past two years and reports of humanitarian crises in locked down areas, however, make a mockery of Beijing’s claims of success in controlling the coronavirus. Fresh outbreaks in Xi’an and other parts of China near the end of 2021 and in the early weeks of the new year are further debunking regime propaganda and undermining the Party’s political legitimacy.
The local government of Xi’an in the northwestern Chinese province of Shaanxi placed the city of 13 million residents on lockdown on Dec. 22 in response to steadily increasing domestic infections. After 14 days of lockdown, the Xi’an authorities announced that the city had hit “zero COVID on a societal level,” but did not allow people to leave their homes. The duration of the Xi’an lockdown—second in duration only to the one in Wuhan—hints at the severity of the situation.
The CCP’s opacity makes it questionable whether the Xi’an authorities had indeed controlled COVID within its borders with the lockdown, or had merely issued political statements while covering up the true number of cases and deaths. Regardless, the authorities paid steep economic and social costs in its chaotic and callous implementation of the “zero-COVID” policy.
The suddenness of the Xi’an lockdown left local residents with little time to prepare. Food, medicine, and other supplies soon became a problem as the local government struggled to make daily deliveries and with shopping apps not functioning due to epidemic controls. Residents eventually took to bartering their goods and gadgets for food, and reports of shortages and people in desperate straits circulated on social media. The central government was later forced to weigh in on the situation, with the PRC State Council announcing on Jan. 8 that it would work to guarantee food supply in Xi’an at stable prices.
Tragedy struck when Xi’an hospitals stuck rigidly to “zero-COVID” protocols and declined admitting patients for non-COVID issues. At least two women suffered miscarriages after hospitals refused to see them on grounds of their noncompliance with epidemic-related rules. In the more famous case, family members of a woman who was eight-months pregnant said in a one-minute video that she had been kept waiting outside the hospital for hours because her COVID test had expired several hours before.
In a video that was viewed 51 million times before being deleted, the woman is seen outside the hospital in a pool of her own blood; her baby was already dead by the time she was admitted. A third woman wrote on Weibo that several hospitals would not treat her father, who had suffered a heart attack, again because of epidemic-related rules; the man later died. The various incidents sparked national fury, with many blaming government ineptitude.
The CCP reacted quickly to assuage public anger. Several hospital managers were either removed from post or suspended after the prominent Xi’an miscarriage case. In a meeting with local officials, Politburo member Sun Chunlan ordered China’s hospitals not to turn away people suffering from severe conditions simply for lacking negative COVID tests. Xi’an’s key public health officials were issued disciplinary warnings, and over two dozen officials were fired. The various punishments, however, did not quieten the negative public chatter about Xi’an or growing discontentment at the CCP authorities’ prioritizing the achievement of “zero COVID” over the well-being of citizens.
The Xi’an lockdown affected local business and livelihood. Big multinational corporations like chip makers Samsung and Micron had to adjust operations at their manufacturing facilities in Xi’an over epidemic restrictions, a move that is bound to affect global semiconductor production and fragile supply chains. Small- and medium-size enterprises without the resources and scale of big multinationals are bound to fare worse, with some guaranteed to go under as the “zero-COVID” policy rules the day. Suffering businesses will in turn affect the local economy, resulting in shrinking local government revenue.
The expenses of implementing “zero-COVID” represent another drag on Xi’an’s economy. The various figures and data found in mainland media reports allow us to piece together a rough estimate of how much the Xi’an government will have to pay to keep people in quarantine and conduct regular compulsory mass testing.
Testing, which costs as much as over 120 yuan (about $19) per person in 2020, was brought down to just under 10 yuan for a five or 10-person bulk test (10 yuan per person) by November 2021. Last December, the Xi’an government conducted six mass tests estimated to cost at least 780 million yuan for the city’s 13 million residents.
Xi’an authorities quarantined over 45,000 people during the lockdown. Given quarantine expenses reported at between 250 yuan to 450 yuan per day and assuming the lower figure, the Xi’an government would need to cough up nearly 160 million yuan to keep 45,000 people in quarantine for 14 days.
On top of quarantine and testing, the Xi’an government has to cover the cost of providing free food and supplies to people stuck in their homes during the lockdown, as well as the wages of personnel hired to make deliveries. Total costs could quickly run up to billions of yuan for a month-long lockdown. For comparison, the Shaanxi provincial government spent 5.562 billion yuan on epidemic prevention and control for the whole of 2021, while the Xi’an government’s total revenue for 2020 was 154.15 billion yuan. Shrinking government revenue will impact local operations, creating a vicious cycle.
Xi’an is just one of Beijing’s latest COVID headaches. January saw outbreaks in Anyang, the financial hub of Shenzhen, and Tianjin. The Tianjin outbreak is perhaps the most worrisome for the Xi leadership as the city is only 70 miles from Beijing, the site of the 2022 Winter Olympics. According to state media reports, Beijing was the top destination of outbound travellers from Tianjin a week before the Tianjin outbreak was reported.
The local authorities of the aforementioned areas have already instituted partial lockdowns and conducted mass tests. However, the chaotic and draconian implementation of “zero-COVID” protocols will likely result in more humanitarian problems and disrupt local economies. Worse, the “zero-COVID” measures themselves could aggravate outbreaks. On Dec. 31, Chinese webportal Sina published a since-deleted piece revealing that more than half of new coronavirus cases in Xi’an at the time came about because people were spreading to each other in mass test queues.
Xi Jinping will unlikely abandon “zero-COVID,” as the policy has become part of his political legacy. But a worsening epidemic situation on the mainland and continued official incompetence will further convince the Chinese people and Xi’s factional rivals that “zero-COVID” is more of a failure than a success. Mounting socio-economic problems will transform into political pressures for Xi and affect his bid for a norm-breaking third term at the 20th Party Congress.