Podcast: The Detail
A Shanghai-based journalist says the protests in China over strict Covid-19 measures are unlike anything she’s seen before
While much of the world has moved into a kind of post-Covid state, managing and tolerating the virus’ spread through society, the world’s most populous country has gone its own way.
For the past three years, China has stuck to its zero-Covid strategy, relying on mass testing and strict lockdowns to stamp out cases when and where they emerge.
For a long time, this worked well. But the emergence of the Omicron variant changed the game.
Earlier this year, an outbreak in Shanghai became the most widespread in the region since the beginning of the pandemic.
From June, things cooled off, until another outbreak in October.
By late November, the country was notching up record infections.
The government dealt with it as it has done: by locking down.
But after three years, many of the nation’s citizens have had enough. Protests have begun to spread across major cities.
“In my 20 years in China, I’ve never seen anything like this,” says Shanghai-based journalist Lisa Movius.
“The protests are remarkable, the crackdown is remarkable. It’s really unlike anything I’ve seen before.
“It is pretty scary.”
Movius says the protests were ignited by a tragic fire in an apartment complex in Urumqi, in Xinjiang province.
At least 10 people died and there was speculation residents couldn’t get out of the building because they’d been bolted inside.
“Everyone [was] so sad and horrified that this would happen, but it especially resonates here in Shanghai, because while Urumqi had a much longer, 100-day lockdown, we had a similar, 60-day lockdown this spring.
“What happened in Urumqi could absolutely have happened to anyone here, and we spent those two months terrified that our buildings would catch on fire and we wouldn’t be able to get out of them because, in many cases, our doors were bolted, we were locked into our apartment units. So it’s something that really hits a nerve here, after a year of really stringent measures.”
While anti-lockdown protests aren’t anything new in China, these new protests have a broader remit, and a broader audience crossing age and class divides.
Some protestors have called the Chinese Communist Party’s leadership into question. Many demonstrators chose to hold up sheets of white paper, symbolising the censorship rife in the world’s most populous country.
Movius says it’s difficult to say where things go from here: China is in a tough spot vaccine-wise, as it refuses to use imported vaccines, and reluctance among the older population in particular is high.
However, there are signs that the government’s stance is softening, with the vice-premier saying in November that China faces a “new situation”.
However, any move away from the zero-Covid strategy is likely to have severe effects.
A peer-reviewed paper in the May edition of the Nature Medicine journal suggested it could result in as many as 1.6 million deaths, and put incredible strain on the country’s health system.
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