China doubles down on its zero-COVID policy ahead of party congress

The ruling party newspaper lauds Xi Jinping's flagship policy, showing who's in charge ahead of the meeting.
By Gao Feng, Gu Ting and Sun Cheng for RFA Mandarin
China doubles down on its zero-COVID policy ahead of party congress A health worker waits for people to be tested for COVID-19 at a swab collection site in Beijing, May 19, 2022.

The ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has doubled down on its leader Xi Jinping's zero-COVID policy, with a key political communique ahead of the 20th party congress saying it must become "normalized."

The final plenary session of the CCP Central Committee, which typically sets the tone for the party congress that follows, said the government had persevered with rolling lockdowns, mass testing and a health code app that controls people's movements and successfully "normalized" the anti-COVID measures.

Meanwhile, the CCP's official newspaper, the People's Daily, ran two front page op-ed articles supporting zero-COVID.

"We can't lie down on the job, because it's impossible to win that way," read the headline of one article on the front page on Wednesday, while an article dated Oct. 10 called for public patience with the measures, which have seen millions sealed into their homes, often without enough to eat or access to medical treatment, resulting in reports of deaths from suicide, starvation and untreated medical emergencies across the country.

The first article said governments around the country must "stick unswervingly to the zero-COVID policy, successfully normalize disease control and prevention measures, and never lose sight of the fundamental aim, which is to prevent large-scale outbreaks."

"People on a 100-mile journey can't stop after 95 miles and call it success," the second article said. "In the fight against the pandemic, confidence is more precious than gold."

"Some countries choose to lie down on the job, adopting the 'living with COVID' strategy," it said. "This isn't because they don't want to control the pandemic, but because they are unable to."

Chinese political commentator Wei Xin said the communique shows that Xi's zero-COVID policy is now a main plank of the official party line.

"Sticking with zero-COVID means ... maintaining the authority of CCP Central Committee with Xi Jinping at the core," Wei said. "I believe that zero-COVID will continue for a long time after the 20th National Congress is over."

"It has become part of China's national governance now, and even part of the 20th party congress," he said.

Former Chinese Red Cross official Ren Ruihong said the repeated praise for zero-COVID in the People's Daily means that Xi Jinping is firmly in charge, on the eve of a congress at which he will seek an unprecedented third term in office.

"One faction has always hoped that there might be some relaxation of the policy, so they can start to see some economic recovery," Ren told RFA. "For the People's Daily to insist on zero-COVID at this time ... means that zero-COVID will be with us for some time to come."

"It is also telling people who has the upper hand in politics, and that there won't be any leeway [for those who oppose zero-COVID], that this is just wishful thinking," Ren said. "All the power is still in the hands of the Xi faction."

Workers erect fencing around a neighborhood in lockdown in Shanghai's Changning district, after new COVID-19 cases were reported, Oct. 7, 2022.  Credit: AFP
Workers erect fencing around a neighborhood in lockdown in Shanghai's Changning district, after new COVID-19 cases were reported, Oct. 7, 2022. Credit: AFP
School closures

The articles and communique came as authorities in the northern city of Xi'an closed schools, colleges and other public places in a notice dated Oct. 11.

A resident of the city surnamed Ma said children are continuing to take their classes online.

"All classes have been suspended today," Ma said. "My kids are [grown] now, but my grandson's school is making arrangements online."

"Every class in their school has its own WeChat group, where a teacher sets homework for them at a set time," he said.

Tourist attractions, museums, movie theaters and other public venues have also been closed since Oct. 11, after a handful of local COVID-19 cases were detected, bringing the total number of confirmed cases since Oct. 1 to 12, with 52 asymptomatic infections.

"Places needed to support life haven't been closed ... supermarkets are still open," Ma said. "But every time there is an outbreak, prices rise: [the government's attempts at] price-monitoring are ineffective."

Zheng Yun, California-based director of the Chinese Democracy Education Foundation, hails from Xi'an and has been in touch with family members back home.

She said most people are now "numb" to the continual lockdowns and disruptions to daily life.

"They said they were pretty numb to it now," Zheng said. "It's scary that it has just become the norm now."

"Some places may [handle it in a way that] makes some people resist, but they are quickly suppressed," she said.

Students from Lanzhou College of Arts and Sciences in the far-western province of Gansu were among those criticizing the zero-COVID policy on their campus on Tuesday, after thousands of students contracted COVID-19 after being forced to quarantine together in close quarters.

"Don't just sit there and ignore this; do something to save us," wrote one desperate student in a school WeChat group. "I've been begging for help for a whole day now, but no-one has come."

"Why are they doing this? Why don't they value students' lives as their own?"

The student said he had called emergency services repeatedly, but that they never answered the phone.

A passenger undergoes a test for COVID-19 as she arrives at the Nanjing Railway Station during the National Day holidays in Nanjing in China's eastern Jiangsu province, Oct.  6, 2022. Credit: AFP
A passenger undergoes a test for COVID-19 as she arrives at the Nanjing Railway Station during the National Day holidays in Nanjing in China's eastern Jiangsu province, Oct. 6, 2022. Credit: AFP
Coverup in Lanzhou

An employee of a Lanzhou university who gave only the surname Zhao said the mass infections at the Lanzhou arts university were initially covered up by the authorities, who hoped that sending students to quarantine camps would mean the rest of the world never found out about the local outbreak.

He said a young man in the city was recently held in administrative detention and fined 2,000 yuan for claiming there would be a lockdown in the city.

"If you're not an official, then everything you say is a rumor," Zhao said. "You can't tell the truth."

The zero-COVID policy has also seen authorities in the southwestern province of Yunnan tell tourists stranded by a lockdown to consider taking jobs in the Xishuangbanna region, where they will be forced to remain for some time.

And Zhang Hai, a resident of the southern city of Shenzhen, said many districts there remain under lockdown.

"Yesterday, there were 33 more cases in Shenzhen, and many venues were shut down again," he said.

"They now found another mutation of COVID-19; its lethality is weakening, but the government still torments ordinary people," Zhang said. "Everyone is really sick of doing constant PCR tests, but there's nothing we can do about it."

By Oct. 11, authorities in Guangdong, Shaanxi, Shandong and Inner Mongolia had reported finding the Omicron BF.7 variant, the first time the mutation had been detected in the country.

Meanwhile, residents of Shanghai began panic-buying bottled water earlier this week, amid reports that the city's drinking water supply has been jeopardized by salinization of local rivers following the summer's disastrous drought in the Yangtze river basin.

Shanghai resident Zhu Jinhua said news of a possible water shortage in Shanghai's reservoirs.

"Shanghai hasn't had much rain this year," Zhu said. "When it did rain, it was just a drizzle, not a downpour."

"This year was a little worse compared with previous years, so now I have to order bottled water."

The Caixin news site said the drought had meant that less fresh water from the river is entering the brackish areas at the river's mouth, with salt water entering reservoirs at Chenhang and Qingcaosha earlier this month, forcing them to shut their sluice gates.

Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.


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