If China, in Some parallel universe that allows a vote on its “zero corona policy” will gain support for the “change course” camp. Officials have imposed partial lockdowns on cities from Xining in the west to Fuzhou in the south in an effort to combat the new variant of covid-19 ahead of an expected winter surge in infections. Restaurants have closed, schools have gone online, access to food outlets has been limited, and millions of people are in some form of lockdown, many for a second or third time.
The “closed loop” policy of confining factory workers in production sites and fenced-in dormitories has also attracted public attention. Videos on social media showed workers climbing fences and fleeing busy roads on foot at the virus outbreak at the world’s largest iPhone factory, run by Taiwanese electronics giant Foxconn near central Zhengzhou. Following an outcry from Chinese netizens, Foxconn paid out bonuses to workers who stayed put. Authorities in Zhengzhou announced that the latest covid variant is mild and nothing to worry about.
Alas, such assurances are at odds with the grim wartime mood that hangs over the rest of China. Images on smartphones have gone viral of epidemic guards in white overalls beating up rebellious citizens so they can buy food or medicine for their families. Guards also prevented seriously ill patients from going to hospitals. In the northwestern city of Lanzhou, a toddler died of carbon monoxide poisoning after being stranded at a quarantine checkpoint.
Censors have had more luck stifling bad news from the backwoods. Lhasa, the Tibetan capital, has been under lockdown for more than two months, sparking rare street protests. Xinjiang, a heavily policed northwest region, has been battling an outbreak since summer, leaving residents hungry and desperate. Because the two regions are virtually closed to the outside world and most travel out of Xinjiang has been banned since early October, their ordeal is not widely known in China. This is certainly the case for Chinese who believe news reports on state television.major nights of the past week television news program, News Feeds, showing viewers graphic images of deaths, speeding ambulances, and patients in intensive care. None of these somber images came from China. They come from bridge collapses in India, the Halloween stampede in South Korea and the coronavirus pandemic in the United States: all part of a relentless effort to paint China as a haven of order in a terrifying world. News Feeds Just a brief overview of covid in China, with a simple graph showing the number of cases each night.
As more Chinese grow tired of the zero-coronavirus policy and the economy slows, some investors and other outsiders appear to believe that China must soon join the rest of the world and prepare to live with the virus. Shares of Chinese companies staged a multibillion-dollar rally on Nov. 1 on unsubstantiated rumors about a new pandemic policy committee. Such wishful thinking pays little attention to the chaos that ensued, allowing the virus to sweep through a country that was undervaccinated, had no herd immunity, and had weak hospitals. It also overstates the importance of urbanites complaining on social media, to party bosses. Zero-covid is a numbers game. If everywhere is as unhappy as Zhengzhou, the party secretary will pay attention. But China has more than 100 cities with populations of at least 1 million. At no point was most people under severe lockdown.
For the starkest contrast to his home in COVID-19-ravaged Beijing, Chaguan traveled 1,300 kilometers (800 miles) south to Jingdezhen. The sleepy city of 1.6 million people in the forested mountains of Jiangxi province may hold the record for China’s pandemic luck, with no cases detected in the past 33 months. Jingdezhen conducts strict testing of newcomers at its airport and train station. But once tourists enter the city, the pandemic can feel far away. Stunned, your columnist joins hundreds of unmasked locals on a weekend night as they line up to dance, watch kids on motorbikes or spin faucet streamers: scenes of freedom unimaginable elsewhere in China .
The good and bad of life in stagnant water
Jingdezhen made ceramics for the emperor. Locals are now advising them to stay safe from the coronavirus by staying off the beaten track. The city attracts very few migrant workers. Residents see a tradeoff in this isolation. A woman selling porcelain at a street market says business is bad: the pandemic has kept tourists from traveling. She has seen videos on social media of what appears to be normal in the U.S., so she knows the death toll there has dropped. But she does not question the government’s policy. “We Chinese follow instructions from above,” she said. “Anything they ask of us is for our own good, isn’t it?”
For more than a decade, Jingdezhen’s porcelain studios, low rents and rural charm have attracted young artists and those keen to “lay flat” and enjoy a quiet life. Some people refuse to take covid seriously. “Jingdezhen is so poor that even the virus doesn’t bother to come here,” joked a barista at a trendy café. Another café owner, wearing a tweed jacket and indigo tie, insisted that Chinese people in lockdown eat Satisfied, you can even rest at home. “What’s there to regret?” he asked.
Not everyone is so eloquent. In a nearby studio, a young potter trained in Europe is “very sympathetic” to China’s long-running blockade. He moved from Shanghai to Jingdezhen this spring after a long period of isolation there. Now he worries about smaller, lesser-known cities or areas with few young people. Their ordeal was not reported on social media. He said that many Chinese people live an atomized life: “If it doesn’t happen in person, many things are unfathomable to them.”
Party leaders should breathe a sigh of relief at hearing such fatalism. After all, they work hard to keep ordinary Chinese from knowing too much about what’s going on in the rest of the country. The unlucky can vote with their feet, like those who chose to live out the pandemic in peaceful Jingdezhen. No other referendum will be offered to them. ■
Read more from our China columnist Chaguan:
China and US barely speaking despite looming crisis (October 27)
Xi Jinping Never Turns Back (October 17)
The Dark Side of Chinese Pop Culture (October 13)