During the same period from the 2000s to the early 2010s, civil society seemed to flourish with organizations becoming more vocal on social issues, and print and social media were more aggressive in working to hold the government accountable. Of course, millions of workers were exploited by state and private corporations and constrained by state policies regulating their mobility, and the party-state restricted political activity.
But otherwise, middle-class and working class people did not fear state interference in their private lives. And with the economy at that point still growing rapidly, rising living standards for most seemed to compensate for the state’s rigid denial of freedom and democracy.
Lockdowns and Economic Precarity
Xi Jinping’s zero-Covid policy and its lockdowns changed all of this. Suddenly, people’s freedom of movement and daily life became subject to direct control by the state, and the slowing growth of China’s economy compromised people’s sense of their future prospects. But opposition to the state’s intrusiveness took time to develop.
The government’s Covid policies were initially tolerated as a part of the collective effort to defeat Covid-19. In fact, the initial anger at the spread of Covid was directed at the lack of state action to contain the virus. There was a genuine fear of being infected, which not only could make people sick but also put them into hospitals and quarantine facilities for prolonged periods of time.
Thus the lockdown in Wuhan in the early months of 2020 and the subsequent lockdowns across the country were largely accepted, if not celebrated. They were seen as necessary sacrifices to protect people’s lives. But in reality, the state was imposing its new zero-Covid policies not only to stop the pandemic but also to quell the escalating social conflicts that had emerged in the 2010s, and to save Chinese capitalism.
Most of the policies of the Chinese state in the last few years, apart from zero-Covid, were primarily directed at curtailing the speculative excesses in the high-tech and real estate sectors and restoring economic growth. The state has also taken a more active role in incentivizing couples to have more children to overcome China’s looming demographic crisis precipitated by low birth rates and an aging population.
All of this entailed increased state intervention into the economy and society. Zero-Covid then took the intrusiveness to an unprecedented level. The state’s draconian new policy of lockdowns was certainly not the only option.
In the early months of the pandemic, mutual aid networks in Wuhan and elsewhere demonstrated an alternative. People delivered protective gear, transported medical workers, and supported residents in need. They worked to fill the vacuum left by state inaction.
All of this was shut down once the state stepped in and took control of fighting the pandemic. Since then, it has used its capacity to mobilize personnel and resources to enforce the zero-Covid policy. For much of 2020 and 2021, it seemed to have succeeded.
While many other countries suffered huge losses of life and economic crisis, China allegedly kept its death toll under a few thousand and maintained economic growth through 2021. People’s lives seemed to return to normal. The government seized upon its seeming success to whip up nationalism.
This all came undone over the course of the past year. In 2022, some cities have been under lockdown for weeks and months at a time. The “Big White,” as medical workers dressed in hazmat suits were colloquially called, who had been looked up to as heroes making personal sacrifices for the collective good, became impersonal enforcers of harsh state policies.
People shared footage on social media of them chasing and beating up those deemed in violation of Covid protocols. The hazmat suits have now become masks to disguise these enforcers’ identities, providing them anonymity and with that the confidence to engage in repression with impunity.
A string of Covid-related incidents further undermined faith in zero-Covid. Here are just a few examples: A bus taking infected patients to a quarantine facility crashed, killing 27 passengers. There has been a spike in suicides committed by those under prolonged quarantine. People were thrown into desperation when under lockdown they were deprived adequate access to food in Shanghai. In Guangzhou, migrant workers broke out from under lockdown. And untold numbers of people fell seriously ill after being locked in their homes with Covid and denied access to medical care at hospitals.
These and many other stories sparked anger, and that anger accumulated. Protests began to emerge early this year but were mostly isolated and more easily contained. Perhaps the most iconic of these was the lone protester hanging a banner over Beijing’s Sitong Bridge just before the 20th Party Congress that criticized the zero-Covid policy and called for change. While it only sparked limited copycat actions throughout China, it encouraged many Chinese international students in the West to follow suit and put up similar banners on their campuses.
Shattered Hopes for Change
A milestone in this whole story was the 20th Party Congress. Since the term limit for the Party Secretary had already been removed in 2018, no one was surprised at Xi extending his rule. The term limit essentially helps reshuffle different factions of the Communist Party to achieve balance and ensure orderly leadership transition.
Nevertheless, the maximum term limit cultivates hope that every ten years someone new will assume power and do things differently. Even this modest hope–which usually turns out to be an illusion that quickly turns into disappointment–was shattered.
People feel they are stuck with the same political system for the foreseeable future. Any lingering hope in the self-renewal and self-adjustment of the political system is no more.
Loss of hope in government reform developed at the very same time that people’s economic prospects turned bleak. After rebounding in 2021, China’s economic growth has slowed down. Some local governments, already losing revenues, are struggling to pay for mass Covid testing. The economic pain is keenly felt by workers, especially informal workers, whose livelihood and employment are most susceptible to lockdowns.
For young people, youth unemployment rate has hit a record high in recent months, reaching almost 20 percent among those between 16 and 24 years of age, while new college graduates face a dire employment situation. Record numbers are entering into the labor market each year at the very same time that jobs are shrinking, with China’s leading tech companies laying off their employees rather than hiring. This precarity has stoked anxiety and anger among young professionals and workers.
Some people have hoped for a relaxation of zero-Covid after Xi secured the leadership at the 20th Party Congress. The government sowed that illusion when it issued a new 20-point guideline that eased restrictions but fell short of implementing a new direction.
A few local governments, such as Hebei province’s capital, Shijiazhuang, went further, lifting testing requirements and removing free testing. But many residents opposed this, and under pressure the local government reversed course and reinstated free testing. And now, with an upsurge of cases reaching its highest ever of over 30,000 a day, the government has reverted back to lockdowns to contain Covid throughout the country.
As a result, people are losing faith in the government’s ability to change, doubt the effectiveness and rationality of its zero-Covid policy, and are reluctant to tolerate the sacrifices it imposes on them. They are also troubled by what appears to be an arbitrary and irrational implementation of the policy.