In Shanghai, COVID-19 has become China’s political disease

A man in blue medical scrubs and mask talks to residents from outside of a Shanghai apartment building using a white megaphone.
Chen Jianli/Xinhua via AP
In this photo released by China’s Xinhua News Agency, a volunteer uses a megaphone to talk to residents at an apartment building in Shanghai, China, Tuesday, April 12, 2022. Shanghai has released more than 6,000 more people from medical observation amid a COVID-19 outbreak, the government said Wednesday, but moves to further ease the lockdown on China’s largest city appeared to have stalled.

In disease-stricken Shanghai, China’s largest city, residents go days without food and weeks without medicinepets are butchered, people jump to their deaths and residents break quarantine by flooding streets in protest. There are clashes with police. Frustrated residents howl from windows and balconies while police drones hover nearby demanding silence. Robot dogs patrol neighborhoods. The Shanghainese speak of the “White Terror” and “White Cultural Revolution” because of the hazmat suits seen everywhere. 

China’s financial capital has been reduced to a barter economy. Desperate residents trade goods for food. “Coca-Cola is hard currency,” writes New York Times columnist Li Yuan. 

As a Chinese resident in a city close to Shanghai told a friend of mine this month, “Shanghai is in a critical situation now.” 

The Communist Party turned Shanghai, a city of 27.8 million people, into what Tucker Carlson aptly called “the largest prison camp in human history.” The inhumanity of China’s near-total lockdown of that metropolis — the party says it maintains a “dynamic zero-COVID” policy — is not some aberration. It is the logical extension of the ruling organization’s you-must-put-politics-in-command system. 

As Charles Burton of the Ottawa-based Macdonald Laurier Institute tells me, “The lockdown in Shanghai perfectly reflects the logic of the Chinese Communist Party’s tyrannical rule.” 

Consequently, it does not matter that disease-control measures make no sense for China’s 1.41 billion people. They have to make sense for only one person, ruler Xi Jinping. 

The Chinese Communist Party’s tactics don’t work. In fact, they probably help spread disease. For instance, residents waiting in long lines for testing — tests are usually administered daily — are thought to be transmitting the disease, and those transferred to rudimentary quarantine facilities, where there is mingling in unhygienic conditions, undoubtedly end up doing the same. 

At the same time, the strict lockdown rules, among other things, have blocked access to non-COVID healthcare, torn apart families, severely disrupted society and undermined livelihoods and the broader Chinese economy.  

The extreme COVID-19-control approach in Shanghai is a reflection of what is happening around China. Nomura estimates that lockdowns and other restrictions currently affect 45 cities in China accounting for about 25 percent of the country’s population and around 40 percent of its gross domestic product. 

China’s now-totalitarian regime is prepared for anything. On April 6, the party’s Shanghai branch issued an open letter demanding members “dare show their swords and fight against all kinds of behavior that interferes with and destroys the overall efforts against the pandemic.” On April 3, China’s military sent more than 2,000 medical staff to the city in what looked like a less-than-subtle warning. If the People’s Liberation Army can dispatch doctors and nurses, it can also deploy soldiers.  

Because the COVID-19-control campaign in Shanghai is misguided from every perspective, it must be driven by Communist Party politics. 

There are, it appears, two primary reasons why the party has gone overboard. The organization’s elite will come together for the 20th National Congress, if tradition holds, this October or November. 

Every national congress, now held once every five years, is a crucial event. This year’s congress is even more so. Xi Jinping is aiming for an unprecedented third term as general secretary. In other words, this is where he becomes — or doesn’t become — China’s dictator for life.  

Xi is considered the author of the COVID-19 restrictions, so he cannot allow criticism of them at this especially sensitive time and cannot change the COVID-19 policy at least until getting his coveted third term. Any concession would be perceived in senior Communist Party circles as an admission of fault. Xi is not about to hand his many detractors what amounts to a dagger. “Prevention and control work cannot be relaxed,” Xi said, as reported by the official Xinhua News Agency on Wednesday.  

Moreover, since the early months of the pandemic, the Communist Party has made the number of the country’s infections and deaths a test of its effectiveness. Unrelenting propaganda maintains the line that Chinese communism is superior to American democracy because China has been better able to control the disease. Chinese authorities, despite numerous reports to the contrary, have acknowledged no deaths in Shanghai during the current wave. 

Every case of coronavirus in China is considered a threat to Communist Party rule. Therefore, the regime is in full information suppression mode. It does not matter whether disease-control measures are obviously wrongheaded. This has become a matter of regime legitimacy and survival. 

A half-decade ago, foreigners were gushing over the Party’s “meritocratic” rule. Defenders acknowledged the organization’s inhumanity but nonetheless argued it delivered superior governance to that of the Western democracies. As the COVID-19 debacle plays out in Shanghai and other cities, however, people don’t make that argument anymore. As Burton points out, “the consequence of Chinese Communist Party hubris has been tragic and unnecessary deaths.” 

How can anyone praise China’s political system now? To please one person, Chinese communism is destroying a great city — and a great people. 

Gordon G. Chang is the author of The Coming Collapse of China. Follow him on Twitter @GordonGChang

Tags China COVID-19 Chinese Communist Party coronavirus lockdowns Shanghai Xi Jinping

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