Chinese President Xi Jinping now has a bigger problem than stopping COVID-19 infections: Quelling escalating anger in Shanghai before it spreads across China, creating a wider crisis of confidence in the Communist Party.
The lockdown in China’s main financial hub, now in its third week, has spawned some of the most anti-government criticism in years on the country’s tightly controlled social media. The latest trending post to get censored featured an 82-year-old man pleading for medication with a local party official who said he could offer only traditional Chinese remedies.
“I’m also very worried about the people seeking help,” the party official said in the recording. “I’m also very angry but there’s nothing we can do.”
While food shortages have eased in some places and protests are still rare, simmering rage is rife among 25 million people confined to their homes with no end in sight. Tens of thousands of social media users have passed around acts of individual defiance and reports of suicides on Weibo and WeChat, with censors quickly removing some posts on government misconduct.
One particularly notable sign of discontent was an uptick in links to “Do You Hear the People Sing?” from the musical Les Miserables, which was first censored during pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong in 2019 and briefly resurfaced in the disarray following the initial outbreak in Wuhan.
“Once in a while people need this song, and that would scare some,” one user said. “Let’s see who is afraid.”
The crisis is one of the biggest tests yet for Xi, who is likely to seek a third five-year term during a Communist Party congress later this year. The lockdowns in Shanghai and Jilin — a northeastern province of 24 million people — have fueled widespread criticisms of his government’s response to the highly infectious omicron variant, threatening to taint an occasion to tout his accomplishments and trumpet China’s rise.
Xi made a veiled reference to the growing outrage on Wednesday on a visit to the tourist destination of Hainan province, saying the country needed to stick with its zero-tolerance approach to COVID-19 despite the growing discontent and economic costs. In particular, he said, it was necessary to overcome “paralyzing thoughts” and “war weariness” while preventing any imported cases and local virus flare-ups.
‘Persistence is victory’
“Prevention and control work cannot be relaxed,” Xi said. “Persistence is victory.”
Unlike some shorter lockdowns in China, like one last month in the technological hub of Shenzhen, the extended restrictions in Shanghai are testing just how much citizens can push back in one of the world’s most tightly controlled authoritarian systems. Xi’s rigid approach — now depriving citizens of food, medical care and movement — also threatens to undermine his goals to improve the lives of ordinary people, a key pillar of the social contract that underpins the Communist Party’s legitimacy.
“For Xi, there’s some significant grumbling,” said Dali Yang, professor of political science focusing on China at the University of Chicago, while adding that it’s yet to reach crisis levels for the president.
“Overall, the situation is localized at the moment — it depends on how the virus spreads,” he added. “But I would never underestimate the capacity of Chinese propaganda system to lead Chinese opinions. After Wuhan, the public support for the leadership did not decrease, it actually increased.”
For all those who see Shanghai as an example of why Xi’s policies are impractical and unsustainable, other social media users blamed the city’s leaders for “lying flat” — a reference to young people who are less than keen on picking a career — and failing to stamp out the virus early enough. Sima Nan, a commentator known for staunchly supporting the Communist Party, garnered some 600 comments for a Weibo post saying that Shanghai should stick with a zero-tolerance strategy. One user said the city’s inability to control the virus “damaged the whole country.”
Hu Xijin, former editor-in-chief of the Communist Party backed Global Times newspaper, said on Weibo that the majority in China still supports a “COVID zero” approach even while noting the “disturbing messages and videos” out of Shanghai. He said other provinces aren’t ready to live with the virus even if it’s acceptable to the city, warning that it “will really become an island, or soon the whole country will be ‘pulled down.’”
‘Totalitarian feedback loop’
“But we should be careful to not fan the flames, not elevate problems into a class issue, and more importantly not to gloat at others’ misfortune,” Hu added. “We still need to give Shanghai a little more time.”
Investors have been looking for any sign that Xi would relax some COVID-19 curbs. Speculation on Tuesday over easing measures lured the biggest foreign inflows this month to local stocks, though that optimism quickly dissipated with Xi’s latest comments. Most bets are centered on how much economic stimulus is coming to help achieve a 5.5% growth target that looks increasingly untenable.
Pimco Asia Ltd. this week downgraded its China growth forecast to mid-4% this year on expectations that the mainland’s COVID-19 disruption won’t normalize until May. “The longer local lockdowns last, the harder it will be for factories to make up losses,” Carol Liao China economist wrote in a note.
One concern is that China is in a “worsening totalitarian feedback loop” similar to what’s happening in Russia, in which officials around Xi are scared to bring him bad news, according to Anne Stevenson-Yang, a co-founder of J Capital Research Ltd. who spent roughly a quarter-century in China.
“People tend to double down when pressured,” she said. “The narrative has to be about how China is facing an increasingly hostile external environment through no fault of its own and must achieve a greater level of self-reliance and isolation.”
In Shanghai, the government has piled pressure on grassroots leaders and police officers to strictly enforce the lockdown, prompting some to get fed up. One residential community party chief expressed frustration about “rigid instructions from above” on constant lockdowns and mass testing orders in a resignation letter passed around on social media. Another broke down when talking to a resident requesting help in a leaked audio, saying “I have no vegetables, I have no manpower, I have nothing.”
“The gripes among ordinary people are not so much directed toward COVID zero as it is about the messy implementation,” Huang Yanzhong, a senior fellow for global health at the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations.
Still, for residents like Irene Li, the damage is lasting. “Shanghai was the best place in China because of her freedom, her modernization, her internationalization,” she said. “And yet it has turned to this, where one ridiculous policy has harmed so many lives.”
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