Zero COVID in China: Young People Give Up on an “Abnormal” State

Politics Society Health

Extensive PCR testing, quarantines, and sealed-off cities continue to characterize the Chinese government’s “Zero COVID” policy. Although COVID-19 appears to be under control in major cities like Beijing and Shanghai, the future remains uncertain due to rising infections in cities in the eastern part of the country. Resentment towards Xi Jinping’s administration builds by the day as authorities continue to severely curtail private rights while forcing citizens to sacrifice their economic livelihoods.

“For the Next Five Years”

In late June, the Chinese government announced a substantial shortening of the mandatory quarantine period in centralized facilities for people entering China. Travelers would now only have to stay in these facilities for one week instead of two. The Chinese government, however, emphasized that it was staying the course on its Zero COVID policy.

The government’s announcement came soon after anxiety-inducing remarks by Beijing’s top Chinese Communist Party official were reported online. The Beijing Daily, the city’s CCP news outlet, featured excerpts from a June 27 speech by Cai Qi, Secretary of Beijing’s CCP Municipal Committee, quoting him as saying that Beijing would adhere to Zero COVID measures “for the next five years.”

The social media reaction was fast and furious. Some users expressed exasperation at having to endure strict measures for half a decade; others publicly broadcasted their intention to rethink their long-term commitment to living in Beijing. Weibo, China’s popular microblogging site, soon banned the use of the hashtag “for the next five years,” while the Beijing Daily removed the reference, citing an “editing error.”

The Beijing Daily president, Zhao Qingyun, quickly attempted to clarify the details of the incident on Weibo, asking his followers to share his words:

The phrase “for the next five years” did not appear in Secretary Cai’s remarks and were mistakenly added by the reporter. Maybe it is hard to understand how it happened, but the reporter was rushing to publish the article as quick as possible using a prepared template and only briefly looking over the main points of Secretary Cai’s speech. The template contained the boilerplate language “for the next five years”, and this phrase was left in among wording about maintaining pandemic control measures. The reporter was clearly not thinking straight.

The article remained online with only the words “for the next five years” missing:

The thirteenth CCP Beijing Municipal Congress opened this morning. Comrade Cai Qi reported that Beijing would continue to maintain Zero COVID pandemic control measures [for the next five years] and would resolutely protect against outside infections as well as internal transmission. The city will maintain and improve Beijing’s “four joint responsibilities” (local, work unit, organizational, and individual), infection prevention mechanisms, and the “four earlies” emergency response system (early detection, reporting, isolation, and treatment). Beijing will implement comprehensive pandemic controls that are scientific, accurate, and dynamic.

However, should the Beijing Daily have brushed off these concerns so casually? To many in China, reading the above passage with or without the phrase “for the next five years” may not make all that much difference. Leaving aside the truth about whether Secretary Cai said “for another five years” or not, his remarks aroused public consternation. Instead of explaining away the controversy by focusing on the reporter’s purported mistake, Zhao, as a leading voice in the Beijing media, should have considered why the public was so sensitive to Cai’s comments in the first place.

Running Away from an “Abnormal Country”

The Chinese people are right to be concerned about the future. While “Living with the virus” is becoming globally accepted, the Chinese government continues its irrational and inhumane Zero COVID policy. Unable to leave their homes and without food, residents in high-rise condominiums can be heard banging pots from their windows and grimly yelling, “Let us out!”.

Although there has surely been some fake news mixed in, videos of people jumping from skyscrapers have surfaced on social media. A shocking video also made the rounds showing a small child falling out of a window as two people (likely the child’s parents) are being taken away to a quarantine facility. There are almost certainly people who have become physically weakened or have even died due to not being able to leave their homes.

There are many tragic stories. One mother went around house to house pleading for antifever medication for her son with a 40-degree temperature. No one opened the door to her. A public security official in protective gear captured a dog in a massive net and violently rammed the yelping animal into a dog cage to haul it off. A man likely to be the owner desperately chased after the official, only to be kicked to the ground.

Some citizens have recalled images of the Cultural Revolution. Then, “Red Guards” came out in force to destroy the “Four Olds” (Old Ideas, Old Culture, Old Customs, and Old Habits). Attacking those perceived to be “counterrevolutionary elements,” the Red Guards also destroyed China’s valuable cultural heritage. In this vein, Chinese netizens have started to refer to public security officials dressed in white protective clothing as “White Guards.”

As they do not have to present police identification, it is unclear who is in the suits dragging people away to quarantine. Surely, many people are needed to implement these controls and, if necessary, use force. However, it is entirely possible that people without regular employment or who are loitering are posing as officials and using the pretense of pandemic control to engage in acts of violence against others.

Many citizens are painfully wondering, “What have we done wrong? Why are we being treated like criminals?” In Shanghai, the phrase “1.4 billion to 1” is now in usage. It reflects the sense of helplessness some feel in that, even if 1.4 billion Chinese opposed a policy, because it was the “correct” policy of one man—the “emperor” Xi Jinping—then everyone would have to follow it.

The following comment also appeared on the internet: “While daily freedoms were taken away in the name of COVID-19 in New York and Tokyo, it was not on the same level as China. Those with wealth will surely leave China. Who can stay in such an abnormal country?”

Angry Shanghai residents on June 6, 2022, after their city is sealed off. (© AFP/ Jiji)
Angry Shanghai residents on June 6, 2022, after their city is sealed off. (© AFP/ Jiji)

“We Are the Last Generation”

Another telling video was widely circulated on social media in Shanghai one month into its lockdown. The video shows another public security official in white protective clothing pressuring a family to leave their home to be transported to a government quarantine facility. The official yells at the family, “If you do not obey the city’s orders, your punishment will affect your family for three generations!” A nearby man immediately retorts, “That’s fine. We are the last generation anyway.”

The hashtag #LastGeneration soon began circulating widely. It could well represent the determination of many young people not to have or raise children in China.

Many young Chinese have been influenced by official media narratives that COVID-19 is an American conspiracy, and that China is globally triumphant due to its COVID-19 policies. Why is that a single public security official felt emboldened to throw around threats against people and their descendants?

The lockdown in modern, cosmopolitan cities like Shanghai, a policy over which the residents have no say and that puts them in danger of starving to death, has even led to social media comments such as “I finally understand how people in Uyghur and Hong Kong feel.” The use of authoritarian measures like these one after another could not, after all, happen in a free country.

Young Chinese are also feeling anxiety about the serious employment predicament they find themselves in. Stores are closing and companies are going bankrupt one after another. From the government’s policy of closing cram schools alone, possibly about 10 million people lost employment. Large-scale restructuring is also taking place in the IT industry and other sectors, resulting in job losses. China’s National Bureau of Statistics calculates that the unemployment rate for 16–24-year-olds in urban areas has reached 18.2%, up 2.2 percentage points from 2021. And another 10.8 million college students are due to graduate this autumn and enter the workforce.

It would be easy to say that COVID-19 restrictions remain in place. However, it is really the Chinese system of social control, supercharged by COVID-19, that remains in place. The measures are not just for checking residents’ health status, but for expanding surveillance of them. No matter where you are or what you are doing, you are being tracked. If there is even the slightest doubt about your actions, you will be denied entry to venues; you may even have your bank account frozen.

Many young Chinese are considering moving abroad because they don’t want to marry or raise children in a country like China as it currently appears to them. Among these people, a new neologism is making the rounds to get around state censorship. Runxue (潤学) has come to take on the meaning of “run-ology” online. In its pinyin romanization, the first character of this compound, meaning “wet” or “moist,” resembles the English word “run.” With the second character meaning “learning” in Chinese, the term now refers to emigration: “techniques to run away from China.”

This new form of knowledge is being rapidly shared among net users as Zero COVID remains in place in an increasingly “abnormal” China.

(Originally published in Japanese on July 12, 2022. Banner photo: QR codes found in Beijing during the imposition of Zero COVID restrictions. These QR codes are read with a smartphone to find information on local pandemic developments and curfew restrictions. However, each apartment building has its own specific QR code, creating confusion for residents. © Sung Ho, Kyōdō.)

China sociology COVID-19 pandemic