Empty streets. Barricades strung along roadways. Parked cars unused for so long that some of them can no longer be started. People indoors, some of them possibly locked inside, waiting to be released. Many have no food.
The streets of China’s cities under Covid lockdown are quiet but devastating. But over the last few days, the government’s policies have led thousands of people to gather publicly and openly criticize the government, facing off with police in Shanghai, Beijing and other places.
All of this has taken place amidst a massive uptick in the number of Covid cases, and threats by the government to shut down the cities where those outbreaks are happening.
So far, these demonstrations haven’t reached anywhere near the size or intensity of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. But with regular citizens willing to chant slogans calling for the end of the Communist Party and the rule of Premier Xi Jinping, they illustrate the strain that the government’s policies have placed on the Chinese populace—and the danger that it could create for the regime.
The zero-Covid lockdowns put in place by Xi have already cost the Chinese economy dearly. But the protests have shown that there is also a massive human toll that the Chinese leadership may have failed to take into account.
What are zero-Covid policies?
China’s central government has ordered local municipalities to put lockdown procedures in place even if only a few people test positive for Covid. This means that in such a scenario all schools and businesses in the affected area are closed, except for those that sell food. It also means mass testing, and when people are found to have Covid, they are forced into quarantine, both in their homes and in special quarantine centers.
Of late, China has relaxed some of these rules. Quarantine used to last for ten days. Now it consists of “only” eight, five in a quarantine center and three at home. But people are complaining that these measures leave them without adequate food or other supplies. These lockdowns have also been widespread, affecting tens of millions of people.
The hypervigilant procedures have sometimes resulted in ridiculous situations. In January, an office worker in Beijing tested positive for Covid, whereupon the authorities promptly locked down the entire building, preventing employees from leaving and forcing them to be tested before being allowed to go home.
As comical as this may seem, for those living through such things they are nightmarish—and people are clearly unwilling to deal with them anymore.