Half a year has passed since China's Zero Covid policy ended, and it already feels like a distant dream. Just like everywhere else, people in China are keen to move on and forget the pandemic and the lockdowns. Never mind that there's a new wave of Covid happening; the worst is over, and the majority don't want to think about it anymore.
It's no longer in the Communist Party's interest to talk about it either: much of Chinese society considers the Covid policies of 2022 to have been a complete disaster, from the months and months of extreme lockdowns to the sudden and complete reversal that led to a deadly exit wave and overwhelmed the hospitals. At this point, any further rhetoric about how much better China is at protecting its people would only be counterproductive.
We are unlikely to ever see Chinese films or TV shows that deal with the initial Covid outbreak in Wuhan, or the unprecedented lockdown of Shanghai last year. Even in the rest of the world, to be fair, there are very few films, books or other works of art dealing with the traumatic two years of Covid lockdowns everyone went through. People want to forget, even without the government pushing them do so. It's easy now to see how the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918 disappeared from the popular consciousness. Wars may be written about and remembered for decades, but apparently pandemics aren't the same.
All over the world, the Covid pandemic tested the relationship of trust between the government and the governed, as well as between different components of society. In the West it was the populist right that made a show of not taking Covid seriously and pursuing "mass immunity" at a time when this meant mass death. In the countries where they were in power, like the US and Brazil, the cost in lives was massive.
In China the ruling regime decided to take Covid very, very seriously, starting in late January 2020 (some might argue things would have gone differently if they had started caring a few weeks earlier, but I'll leave that debate aside). The people had no choice but to follow, and for about two years the Chinese approach worked rather well. In fact, for a while it seemed like the pandemic had only made the Chinese people more convinced than ever that being run by a competent dictatorship with unlimited powers was in their best interests. But the reckoning came in the end, and it was dramatic and painful.
For those of us who live in China, 2022 is a year we won't be forgetting fast. We lived most of it under the iron fist of a bureaucracy that was given one task, and pursued it with incredible single-mindedness and thoroughness: to eradicate Covid wherever it showed up. The comfort, dignity and in extreme cases even the lives of the public were deemed less important than this ultimate goal (and if you think this is hyperbolic, go and read about the numerous documented cases of people with serious illnesses being denied entry into hospitals because they had no evidence of a negative Covid test).
In some cases, this huge public health drive descended into utter, surreal madness: fish and vegetables swabbed for Covid, armies of workers in hazmat suits spraying empty streets with disinfectant, crowds storming out of buildings before they could be locked inside because someone had been identified as a "close contact" of a Covid case.
At the time, it wasn't uncommon to hear people in China compare Zero Covid to the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. To some this may seem ridiculous: Zero Covid didn't lead to millions dying of hunger, or to millions more being subjected to struggle sessions and sometimes execution. It started off with the reasonable enough goal of keeping China free from a dangerous virus.
But in other ways the comparison is a good one, especially when you look at the Great Leap Forward and its "scientifically-based" campaigns that brought misery to millions. A good example is the campaign to eradicate the "four pests", and specifically sparrows, which started in 1958. Sparrows were considered to be a pest because they ate large quantities of grain and fruit.
The campaign resulted in millions of people all over China banging pots and pans to prevent sparrows from resting in their nests. The sparrows would fly from tree to tree until they dropped dead from exhaustion. In Beijing, many sparrows found refuge in diplomatic missions. The Polish embassy refused to allow the mobs to enter its grounds and it was surrounded by people banging drums for two days, until the sparrows all dropped dead.
The campaign was very successful in achieving its goal, and sparrows almost became extinct. When the entire Chinese bureaucracy and population are mobilised to achieve a goal it usually gets done, even before the times of smartphones and "digital surveillance". The technology used is a detail; it's the Party's ability to mobilise the country and its reach into every neighbourhood that matters.
The only problem was that sparrows turned out to play an important role in the ecosystem, and when they were gone populations of locusts started rising exponentially, since there were no sparrows left to eat them. This exacerbated the famines associated with the Great Leap Forward, and in the end China had to import sparrows from the USSR to replenish their numbers.
Especially looking at the last year of Zero Covid policy, it's easy to see the same impulse to control nature itself with mass campaigns, even when it goes beyond all reasonableness and demands huge sacrifices of the population. Of course, what those who were making the comparison with Mao's campaigns really sought to imply was that such disasters are the result of one-man rule, then and now.
If there was an obvious mistake the Chinese leadership (or the leader) made, it was to continue the Zero Covid policy in 2022, when the virus became milder but more contagious. Instead of giving up they doubled down, turning China into a theatre of the absurd and squandering most of the goodwill they had accumulated with their own people. This can only be considered a case of terribly policymaking.
Why did they do this? The idea that the pandemic was a convenient "excuse" to track everyone's movements and close China off from the world was always misguided. The Party has long known everything that goes on in China, and the country has always been just as closed off as they deem necessary. Making it all so obvious was if anything counterproductive. It is probable they believed in predictions that Covid was going to cause mass disability and immune suppression in countries that chose to live with it, and thought it was worth waiting and seeing.
On top of that, they seem to have done rather little to prepare for an eventual reopening, failing to mandate vaccinations for the elderly or stock up sufficiently on antivirals and ventilators. Perhaps they believed they could carry on with Zero Covid for a long time, and overestimated how far they could push their people's patience.
Because make no mistake: Zero Covid was abandoned when the Chinese people made it clear they wouldn't take it anymore. Many now claim that the U-turn had already been planned during the 20th Party Congress, in October, because the economy could take the lockdowns no longer. But when had the economy taken priority in the past? And why then were proclamations still being made about how China's Covid policy had demonstrated its correctness and should be followed "unswervingly"?
It is true that by this point the authorities clearly acknowledged that the lockdowns were exasperating people. But the 20 new measures on Covid prevention they passed in early November seemed like an attempt to have your cake and eat it too: loosen up a bit, make it easier for people to live and work like normal, but continue to contain Covid at the same time. When cases inevitably started rising in Beijing and other cities, they went back to the old playbook.
At the end of November 2022, things finally came to a head. Faced with an endless campaign that had descended into grim absurdity and was making normal life impossible, Chinese society reached its breaking point. In what seems like a different era, but was actually just a few months ago, people all over China started physically refusing to be locked down in their homes, and took to the streets in large numbers. Unsurprisingly, this was the point at which Zero Covid was abandoned with breath-taking speed.
The peak of the protests was reached over the weekend of 26-27 November, spurred by the fire in Urumqi that killed 10 people on November 24. It may or may not be true that the city's strict lockdown prevented the victims from leaving the building, and the firefighters from entering the neighbourhood. The authorities have denied it, but it doesn't matter; the point is that it could have been true, and that's bad enough.
It was as if a dam had burst. I have never seen anything like it in China. At the time I was living as the only foreigner in an old residential building in central Beijing, which had been locked down for the weekend. Most of my neighbours were Beijingers of ordinary means. Even in my building's official WeChat group everyone was sharing subversive videos of the protests, demanding to be allowed outside again and raging at the local officials in the group.
Clearly something had to give. This is why I am dubious about claims that the government had already decided to end Zero Covid after the 20th Party Congress, or that they did it because the economy was on its last feet or because the virus was already spreading unstoppably. No, they did it because the people spoke out very clearly, and said they wanted their lives back.
Within two weeks of the protests, the entire architecture of Zero Covid had been dismantled. No more mass testing, no more health apps and QR codes, no more enforced quarantine, no more restrictions on travel, no more nothing. For people in China it was as exhilarating as it was bewildering.
What was most striking to me at the time was the way that the disgust at the extreme anti-Covid policies lead to a wider political awakening among the middle classes and the young, with many asking subversive questions about the nature of state power in China. People who a year earlier would have been proud of their country's unity and sense of purpose and the capability of its leaders were now furious.
The sense of betrayal was palpable. These were people who had understood China's "social contract" to be that in return for not challenging Party rule they would be allowed to make money and chase enjoyment in their private lives however they pleased. Living in fear of getting taken to a horrid quarantine camp by thugs dressed like astronauts wasn't part of the bargain. Unfortunately, the social contract isn't an actual contract and nobody will sanction a government that stops respecting it.
The openly political demonstrations in Beijing and Shanghai, where protestors shouted slogans against the Party and Xi (and later got detained), may have been small affairs. But people all over the country were making the connection between the draconian policies against Covid and the authoritarian one-party system, and weren't shy about saying so.
I remember reading and hearing comments by Chinese saying that they now understood why the Taiwanese didn't want to reunify, or that they now believed the Western reports about mass internments in Xinjiang. I remember seeing a video of a woman in Chengdu speaking to a crowd, saying "in the past I didn't understand why foreigners claim China doesn't have human rights. Now I get it".
As anyone who's lived in China a long time knows, most middle class Chinese do not normally perceive Communist Party rule as particularly oppressive, unreasonable or brutal. Of course, their rule is all of those things to Uyghurs, Tibetans and anyone who tries to challenge the Party's narratives, but many Chinese see their leaders as essentially reasonable people using only as much force as necessary to lead their unruly population in the right direction. The system's worst abuses are either not known about, or they are believed to be necessary to protect China.
To some the draconian lockdowns, and the fear of getting taken by force to a horrible quarantine camp in the middle of the night, suddenly drove home the importance of having proper rule of law. I happen to know a woman from a small town in Northern China who works in Beijing as a journalist. She's never lived abroad, but could be considered broadly liberal by Mainland Chinese standards. When I met her for lunch one day in late 2021, she told me that China's successful handling of Covid had "almost" convinced her that authoritarianism is the superior system.
I spoke to her again in November 2022, and her mood had changed completely. All the residents of her block of flats in Beijing had been taken en masse to a quarantine facility because one person had tested positive for Covid. She'd been confined for eight days to a dingy little room with bad food and conditions. When I spoke to her, she'd just been released.
She said she was truly disillusioned and wanted to leave China. "In the past I had illusions", she said, "but now I've seen the truth. They can do what they want with you. The legality of it and your rights don't matter one bit". When I suggested that China might drop Zero Covid soon, she said she didn't even care. She'd lost faith in the whole system, not just the policies on Covid. "Today they'll trample on the law because of Covid, tomorrow it'll be because of something else".
Although the lockdowns of 2022 may have produced a political awakening of sorts among part of China's population, I don't know how long the effects will linger. The political, social, economic and cultural factors that drive the Communist Party's popularity and support have not disappeared. Assuming that less than a year of unpopular lockdowns could fundamentally change the relationship between the Party and the people is wishful thinking.
Certainly, the events of last year were not a success for the Party. But with their sudden U-turn, they have shown that they still know how to let go before the population really turns against them. What should be more troubling to them is the economic storm gathering on the horizon. The old growth model is now unsustainable, and nothing new is there to replace it. The Party used to promise its people growing standards of living, order and safety. Very soon only order and safety will be left. We shall see what happens then.