China Covid-19: What Xi’an’s chaotic lockdown reveals about uncompromising top-down bureaucracy

Xi’an was subjected to strict blocking orders on December 23 in a drastic attempt to contain the spread of a rapidly growing Covid group. But in the days and weeks since, a steady stream of complaints about food shortages, as well as heartbreaking scenes from critically ill patients, including highly pregnant women, who are denied medical care, have shocked the nation.

Many recalled the traumatic early days of the pandemic in Wuhan, the original epicenter where 11 million residents were confined to their homes for months in 2020.

Since then, China has relied on a combination of massive testing, snap shutdowns, and extensive quarantine measures to stamp out new outbreaks. This zero Covid strategy has successfully protected the country against the worst of the pandemic, potentially saving millions of lives and gaining overwhelming public support.

To date, China has only officially reported 4,636 Covid-related deaths, compared to 829,740 in the United States and 173,248 in the United Kingdom. (Although some scientists have pointed out the differences in the methodology adopted by each country to count deaths from Covid).

The ruling Communist Party has presented that success as proof that its authoritarian one-party political model is superior to Western democracies, which have struggled to control its outbreaks.

But likewise, the tragedies unfolding in Xi’an also stem from the same top-down political system, which demands absolute loyalty, does not tolerate dissent, and places the interests of the whole far above the rights of the people. .

With Beijing hell-bent on achieving its zero Covid goal, local officials often promise to do “whatever it takes” to bring cases back to zero, causing major disruption to daily life and sometimes even It hurts those it is supposed to protect.

“Nobody cares what you die from other than Covid-19,” wrote one user on Chinese social media this week.

Yanzhong Huang, senior global health researcher at the Council on Foreign Relations, describes the phenomenon as “toxic politics.”

“Over the past decades, the public policy process – in terms of agenda setting, policy formulation and implementation – in China has remained top-down, non-participatory, improvised and mobilizing,” he said.

“That has made it easier for local leaders to impose these political measures on society, which is essentially not in a position to negotiate with the state in formulating and executing policies.”

In a way, Xi’an’s dysfunction is no exception. Complaints about disproportionately harsh measures abound during previous prolonged closures in other comparatively smaller areas, from cities in the western Xinjiang region to the southern border city of Ruili. But in Xi’an, these problems took place in a much more extreme form, on a much larger scale, and attracted much broader attention.

“People like to use Shanghai as a kind of benchmark,” Huang said, referring to the widely praised Chinese financial center for its sensible and selective response to Covid. “But they forgot that Shanghai is actually a rare case due to its relatively strong bureaucratic capacity.”

“When capacity is low, government officials are more likely to resort to heavy-handed, indiscriminate, and even excessive measures that significantly raise the cost of implementing this (zero-Covid) strategy,” he said, citing Xi’an as example. .

Over the past week, the Xi’an authorities have faced a public outcry over the draconian lockdown measures that prevent critical patients from receiving urgent medical care. A very pregnant woman reportedly suffered a miscarriage on New Years Day after a hospital denied her entry because she did not have valid Covid proof. A young woman claimed to have lost her father to a heart attack after a long-delayed rescue, after hospitals rejected them for coming from a “medium risk area” of the city.

In an interview with state news outlet The Paper, the woman who lost her father said she was determined to seek answers.

“The guard said she was doing her job; the nurse said she was doing her job; the hospital said she was doing her job. From the perspective of all the epidemic prevention and control requirements, no one was to blame. So Who does the problem lie with? ” she asked.

Outrage Over Xi's Lockdown Tests The Limits Of China's Zero Covid Policy

To quell public anger, the Chinese Communist Party was quick to announce a series of punishments: Hospital administrators were suspended or removed from their posts, while the city’s top public health officials received disciplinary warnings.

At a press conference on Thursday, Liu Shunzhi, head of the Xi’an Municipal Health Commission, bowed and apologized to the woman who lost her son, as well as other patients who were having trouble accessing medical treatment. .

And the upper echelon of the party also intervened. Sun Chunlan, a member of the Politburo and deputy prime minister overseeing China’s Covid response, stressed on Thursday that public access to medical services “should not be denied under any excuse.”

“We are deeply saddened and saddened to see such problems occur, which has exposed the carelessness in prevention and control work, and the lesson is profound,” Sun was quoted as saying by state media. “The original purpose of epidemic prevention and control is to keep people healthy and safeguard their lives.”

By blaming local officials for not doing their job well, Sun overlooked a deeper root cause that drove the Xi’an authorities to such extremes in implementing the blockade, namely the tremendous political pressure to achieve success. zero Covid target of the central government.

Across China, hundreds of local officials have been fired or punished for failing to contain the Covid outbreaks in their localities. With the Lunar New Year and the Beijing Winter Olympics fast approaching, such pressure has only intensified.

Meanwhile, China’s political system has turned even more top-down under President Xi Jinping, who has demanded absolute loyalty from the vast bureaucracy. Local governments are obliged to always follow the line of the central party leadership and carry out its instructions to the letter. As a result, the space for healthy policy discussions and flexibility in implementation has been drastically reduced.

China’s freedom of the press and civil society is also shrinking rapidly, which could have been a warning of a crisis early on. Even during the initial outbreak in Wuhan, some relatively open state media published strong reports and successfully drew attention to problems on the ground, while citizens of China organized to help those in need. But the space for independent information and social organizing has shrunk even further in the past two years, as a wave of nationalism engulfs the country.

During previous outbreaks, when voices of criticism against harsh online shutdown measures emerged, they were often warned to “think about the bigger picture” – that is, the country’s zero-Covid ambitions.

But since the closure of Xi’an, more people are beginning to reflect on the sacrifices people are being asked to make, and whether they are worth it.

Zhang Wenmin, a former investigative journalist living in Xi’an, publicly questioned the official slogan “we must do it at all costs.”

“It may sound great, but by focusing more specifically on the individual level, as an ordinary person, we may want to ask ourselves: are we the ‘us’ here, or are we the ‘cost’ to be paid?” He asked in an article Widely shared recounting his first 10 days locked up, written under his pseudonym Jiang Xue.

“In this world, no one is an island, the death of any individual is the death of all,” he wrote. “The virus did not take lives in this city, but there is a real possibility that other things did.”

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