Widespread protests have erupted in recent weeks across China in response to the government's strict "Zero Covid" policy. The sharp rise in cases has alarmed the Chinese Government, but the citizens are not willing to go back to 2020 kind of lockdowns again.
What is the Zero-Covid Policy?
While the rest of the world has resumed a relatively normal life in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, China's population remains under strict restrictions despite having only a few cases.
The Chinese government imposed the “Zero-Covid” policy to keep the death rate as close to zero as possible by implementing lockdowns, mass testing, and quarantining in government facilities. Businesses, schools, and shops, except for shops selling food, also close in locked-down areas.
The World Health Organization has reported that China has had only 5,200 Covid related deaths over the three years since the pandemic started. This rate is exceedingly low compared to Western Countries with a considerably lower population.
In comparison to China’s 5,200 deaths, The United States has seen over 1 million Covid related deaths. China’s reaction to Covid has been compared to that of the United States, with officials in the United States claiming that “China’s approach to Covid doesn’t make public health sense.”
Although China’s Covid death toll is low, their Zero-Covid policy is detrimental to other aspects of the population's lives and the country.
How is the policy affecting the country?
Lockdowns across the country are described as “incessant, unpredictable and hellish,” with some cities being locked down overnight and lasting for up to two months.
Despite the policy keeping Covid related deaths to a minimum, it is also having a detrimental effect on health and safety, contributing to other deaths and injuries.
In September 2022, the city of Chengdu experienced an earthquake while being in lockdown. Residents were unable to flee their homes and were locked inside buildings due to the Covid-19 restrictions. Rescue workers were also unable to help anyone affected by the earthquake until they produced a negative Covid test.
There have also been reports of suicides linked to the enforcement of the policy.
In addition to the health and safety risks caused by the Zero-Covid policy, many have emphasized the impact on the economy.
“I can feel the recession around me. Obviously, the economy is heading down. Less people in shopping malls, the disappearance of small businesses, and higher prices for daily goods are better proof than official data. It is just a catastrophe now, not because of Covid but because of stupid policy.” - A Chinese citizen to Guardian
A lockdown at the Foxconn factory in Zhengzhou has resulted in a 6 million iPhone drop in production. This factory is responsible for 70% of Apple’s iPhone production. The Zero-Covid policy has tremendously impacted many corporations that utilize Chinese production facilities.
Production contributes significantly to China's economy and the global economy as a whole, causing a more significant impact.
Other impacts include:
The unemployment rate has increased, particularly among young people.
The economic growth rate has been 3.9% instead of the 5.5% that the Chinese government had anticipated.
The property market is also seeing a decrease in value along with oil production.
People took to the streets of cities across the country, with some attending vigils in memory of the victims and others holding blank white sheets of paper. The paper serves as a visual protest against censorship among chants of
"need human rights, need freedom. The white paper represents everything we want to say but cannot say."
The protests began with people opposing the harsh restrictions, but within a couple of days, many began calling for political freedoms. President Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party became the center of criticism, with some demanding that Jinping
Students at Hong Kong University chanted,
“Oppose Dictatorship” and “Freedom.”
The vast majority of protests have been peaceful, but in other instances, police have resorted to violence and detained many protestors. There have been reports of police using pepper spray and pushing and beating the protesters before taking them away.
Video evidence of these acts of violence has been removed from the internet by the Chinese government, and the protesters' phones have been confiscated.
What Triggered the Protests?
Protests have taken place in 17 cities across China, including Beijing and Shanghai. The protests were triggered by a building fire in Urumqi, Xinjiang, which killed ten people. At the time of the fire, Urumqi was under lockdown for 100 days, and as a result, the residents of the building were unable to evacuate.
Many of the Chinese population blame the lockdown for the deaths caused by the fire. However, officials have denied responsibility and accused the victims of failing to save themselves.
How Have the Restrictions Changed Since the Protests?
Following the nationwide protests and criticism of President Xi Jinping and the Chinese communist party, some restrictions have been lifted or changed. In the wake of violent clashes between police and protesters, all restrictions have been lifted in major cities like Guangzhou.
Lockdowns are now targeted to a smaller scale of buildings or floors rather than entire cities or neighborhoods, and schools are to remain open unless there is a large outbreak. Lateral flow tests are replacing PCR tests with the exception of schools and health care environments.
With the relaxation of the Zero-Covid policy, China is expected to see a widespread of Covid infections. China now plans to vaccinate the elderly to keep the death toll low and protect vulnerable people. 90% of China’s population have now received three doses of vaccination, but only 50% of people aged 80 or over have received three doses.
At this moment, it is difficult to predict whether China will continue to ease restrictions or whether harsh sanctions will be reintroduced.
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Rachel Brown is an English Literature and Creative Writing student at Keele University. She is also a content writer at the International Youths Organization for Peace and Sustainability.
Inputs and Edits by Sovena Ngeth.