China’s “zero Covid” policy has a dedicated following: the millions of people who work diligently toward that goal, no matter the human costs.
In the northwestern city of Xi’an, hospital employees refused to admit a man suffering from chest pains because he lived in a medium-risk district. He died of heart attack.
They informed a woman who was eight months pregnant and bleeding that her Covid test wasn’t valid. She lost her baby.
Two community security guards told a young man they didn’t care that he had nothing to eat after catching him out during the lockdown. They beat him.
The Xi’an government was quick and resolute in imposing a strict lockdown in late December when cases were on the rise. But it was not prepared to provide food, medical care and other necessities to the city’s 13 million residents, creating chaos and crises not seen since the country first locked down Wuhan in January 2020.
China’s early success in containing the pandemic through iron-fist, authoritarian policies emboldened its officials, seemingly giving them license to act with conviction and righteousness. Many officials believe they must do all they can to prevent Covid infections, since this is the will of their top leader, Xi Jinping.
For officials, virus control is the most important thing. The people’s lives, well-being and dignity come much later.
The government is supported by a large army of community workers, who execute the policy with zeal. There are also hordes online nationalists who target anyone raising grievances and concerns. The tragedies in Xi’an have prompted some Chinese people to question how those enforcing the quarantine rules can behave like this and to ask who holds ultimate responsibility.
“It’s very easy to blame the individuals who committed the banality of evil,” a user called @IWillNotResistIt wrote on Weibo, the Chinese social media platform. “If you and I become the screws in this gigantic machine, we might not be able to resist its powerful pull either.”
“The banality of evil” is a concept Chinese intellectuals often evoke in moments like Xi’an. It was coined by the philosopher Hannah Arendt, who wrote that Adolf Eichmann, one of the chief architects of the Holocaust, was an ordinary man who was motivated by “an extraordinary diligence in looking out for his personal advancement.”
Chinese intellectuals are struck by how many officials and civilians — often driven by professional ambition or obedience — are willing to be the enablers of authoritarian policies.
When the coronavirus emerged in Wuhan two years ago, it exposed the weaknesses in China’s authoritarian system. Now, with patients dying of non-Covid diseases, residents going hungry and officials pointing fingers, the lockdown in Xi’an has shown how the country’s political apparatus has ossified, bringing a ruthlessness to its single-minded pursuit of a zero-Covid policy.
Xi’an, the capital of Shaanxi Province, is in a much better position than Wuhan in early 2020, when thousands of people died of the virus, overwhelming the city’s medical system. Xi’an has reported only three Covid-related deaths, the last one in March 2020. According to the city, 95 percent of its adults had been vaccinated by July. It had 2,017 confirmed cases as of Monday, and no deaths.
It imposed a strict lockdown. Residents were forbidden from leaving their homes. Some buildings were kept locked up. More than 45,000 people were transferred to quarantine facilities.
The city’s health code system, which is used to track people and enforce quarantines, collapsed under heavy use. Delivery services disappeared largely. Some residents took to the internet to complain that they didn’t have enough food.
However, the lockdown rules were followed assiduously.
A few community volunteers made a young male who ventured out to purchase food read a letter of self-criticism in front of a camera. “I only cared about whether I had food to eat,” the young man read, according to a widely shared video. “I didn’t take into account the serious consequences my behavior could bring to the community.” The volunteers later apologized, according to The Beijing News, a state media outlet.
Three men were caught while escaping from Xi’an to the countryside, possibly to avoid the high costs of the lockdown. They walked, biked, and swam in the cold during winter nights and days. According to media reports and local police officers, two of them were detained. Together they were called the “Xi’an ironmen” on the Chinese internet.
There were also hospitals that denied patients access and denied their loved ones the opportunity to say goodbye.
A man who was suffering from chest pains as he died of a heart attack, waited six hours for a hospital to admit him. His condition worsened and his daughter begged hospital staff to allow her in to see him.
A male employee refused, according to a video she posted on Weibo after her father’s death. “Don’t try to hijack me morally,” he said in the video. “I’m just carrying out my duty.”
A few low-level Xi’an officials were punished. The head of the city’s health commission apologized to the woman who suffered the miscarriage. The general manager of a hospital was fired. The city announced last Friday that no medical facility would be allowed to refuse patients based on Covid tests.
That was it. China Central Television, the country’s state broadcaster, stated that some local officials were blaming their subordinates. The broadcaster said that only low-ranking cadres were punished for these problems.
There are reasons why people in the system were not compassionate and few people spoke up online.
CCTV reported that an Anhui Province emergency doctor was sentenced for 15 months for failing pandemic control protocols in treating a fever patient last year.
A deputy director-level official at a government agency in Beijing lost his position last week after some social media users reported that an article he wrote about the lockdown in Xi’an contained untruthful information.
In the article, he called the lockdown measures “inhumane” and “cruel.” It bore the headline “The Sorrow of Xi’an Residents: Why They Ran Away from Xi’an at the Risk of Breaking the Law and Death.”
The Chinese internet has become a parochial platform where nationalists can praise China, the government, and the Communist Party since Wuhan. Online grievances are attacked as ammunition for hostile foreign media and no criticism or dissent is tolerated.
Red, the social media platform, censored a post by the daughter of the man who died of heart attack because “it contained negative information about the society,” according to a screenshot on her account.
In Xi’an, there is no author like Fang Fang writing her Wuhan lockdown diary, no citizen journalists Chen Qiushi, Fang Bin or Zhang Zhan posting videos. The four of them have either been silenced, detained, disappeared or left dying in jail — sending a strong message to anyone who might dare to speak out about Xi’an.
The only widely circulated, in-depth article about the Xi’an lockdown was written by the former journalist Zhang Wenmin, a Xi’an resident known by her pen name, Jiang Xue. According to a source close to her, her article has been deleted and state security officials have warned her not speak further about the matter. Some social media users called it garbage and suggested that she be taken out.
A few Chinese publications that had written excellent investigative articles out of Wuhan didn’t send reporters to Xi’an because they couldn’t secure passes to walk freely under lockdown, according to people familiar with the situation.
The Xi’an lockdown debacle hasn’t seemed to convince many people in China to abandon the country’s no-holds-barred approach to pandemic control.
Fang Fang is a former athlete who has been disabled and is suffering from a variety of illnesses. She wrote her Wuhan diary 2020 for Fang Fang. Last month, he posted on his Weibo account that he couldn’t buy medicine because his compound in Xi’an was locked down. His problems were solved, and now he uses the hashtag #everyoneinpositiveenergy and retweets posts that attack Ms. Zhang, the former journalist.
Despite announcing the city’s battle with the virus as a victory last week, the government isn’t relenting on much of the rules, and is setting a very high bar for ending the lockdown. The party secretary of Shaanxi told Xi’an officials on Monday that their future pandemic control efforts should remain “strict.”
“A needle-size loophole can funnel high wind,” he said.
Claire FuContributed research
Source: NY Times