The army of millions who enforce China’s zero Covid policy

China’s “zero Covid” policy has dedicated supporters: the millions of people who work diligently to achieve this goal, regardless of the human costs.

In northwestern Xi’an city, hospital workers refused to admit a man with chest pain because he lived in a medium-risk neighborhood. He died of a heart attack.

They informed a woman who was eight months pregnant and bleeding that her Covid test was not valid. She lost her baby.

Two community security officers told a young man they didn’t care he had nothing to eat after grabbing him during the lockdown. They beat him.

The Xi’an government was swift and determined to impose a strict lockdown in late December, as cases escalated. But it was not ready to provide food, medical care and other essentials to the city’s 13 million residents, creating chaos and crises unprecedented since the country’s first lockdown in Wuhan. in January 2020.

China’s early successes in containing the pandemic through authoritarian and iron-fisted policies have emboldened its officials, apparently giving them the right to act with conviction and righteousness. Many officials now believe they must do everything in their power to ensure zero Covid infection since it is the will of their top leader, Xi Jinping.

For officials, virus control comes first. The life, well-being and dignity of people come much later.

The government has the help of a vast army of community workers who zealously implement the policy and hordes of online nationalists who attack anyone who raises grievances or concerns. The Xi’an tragedies have prompted some Chinese to wonder how those who enforce quarantine rules can behave like this, and to ask who holds ultimate responsibility.

“It’s very easy to blame individuals who have committed the banality of evil,” wrote a user called @IWillNotResistIt on Weibo, China’s social media platform. “If you and I become the screws of this gigantic machine, we may not be able to withstand its mighty pull either. “

“The banality of evil” is a concept Chinese intellectuals often bring up in times like Xi’an. It was invented by the philosopher Hannah Arendt, who wrote that Adolf Eichmann, one of the principal architects of the Holocaust, was an ordinary man who was motivated by “extraordinary diligence in seeing to his personal advancement”.

Chinese intellectuals are struck by how many officials and civilians – often motivated by professional ambition or obedience – are ready to be catalysts for authoritarian policies.

When the coronavirus first appeared in Wuhan two years ago, it exposed the weaknesses of the Chinese authoritarian system. Now, with patients dying from non-Covid diseases, starving residents and officials pointing fingers, the Xi’an lockdown has shown how the country’s political apparatus has become sclerotic, bringing a ruthless to its resolute pursuit of ‘a zero-Covid policy.

Xi’an, the capital of Shaanxi province, is in a much better position than Wuhan in early 2020, when thousands of people died from the virus, overwhelming the city’s medical system. Xi’an has only reported three Covid-related deaths, the latest in March 2020. The city said 95% of its adults were vaccinated in July. In the latest wave, it had reported 2,017 confirmed cases on Monday and no deaths.

However, he imposed very severe confinement. Residents were not allowed to leave their concessions. Some buildings have been locked. More than 45,000 people have been moved to quarantine facilities.

The city’s health code system, which is used to track people and enforce quarantines, has collapsed under heavy use. The deliveries have largely disappeared. Some locals have taken to the internet to complain about not having enough food.

But the confinement rules have been diligently followed.

Some community volunteers had a self-critical letter read to a young man who ventured out to buy food in front of a video camera. “I only cared if I had something to eat,” the young man read, according to a widely shared video. “I did not take into account the serious consequences that my behavior could have on the community. The volunteers then apologized, according to The Beijing News, a state outlet.

Three men were captured as they escaped Xi’an into the countryside, possibly to avoid the high costs of the lockdown. They walked, biked and swam during winter days and nights. Two of them were arrested by police, according to local police and media. Together, they were nicknamed the “Iron Men of Xi’an” on the Chinese Internet.

Then there were the hospitals that denied patients access to medical care and denied their loved ones the opportunity to say goodbye.

The man who suffered from chest pain as he died of a heart attack waited six hours before a hospital finally admitted him. After his condition worsened, his daughter begged the hospital workers to let her in and see him for the last time.

An employee refused, according to a video she posted on Weibo after her father died. “Don’t try to turn me away morally,” he said in the video. “I’m just doing my duty. “

Some low-level Xi’an officials were punished. The head of the city’s health commission apologized to the woman who suffered from the miscarriage. The general manager of a hospital has been suspended. Last Friday, the city announced that no medical establishment can reject patients on the basis of Covid tests.

But that was about it. Even the state broadcaster, China Central Television, said some local officials simply blamed their subordinates. It seemed, the broadcaster wrote, that only low-level executives were punished for these problems.

There are reasons people in the system have shown little compassion and few have spoken online.

An emergency doctor in eastern Anhui province was sentenced to 15 months in prison for failing to follow pandemic control protocols when treating a fever patient last year, according to CCTV.

A deputy director-level official at a government agency in Beijing lost his post last week after some social media users reported that an article he wrote about the Xi’an lockdown contained false information.

In the article, he called the lockdown measures “inhumane” and “cruel”. It was titled “The Grief of the People of Xi’an: Why They Fled Xi’an at Risk of Breaking the Law and Dying.”

Since Wuhan, the Chinese internet has become a parish platform for nationalists to praise China, the government, and the Communist Party. No dissent or criticism is tolerated, with online grievances being attacked for providing ammunition to hostile foreign media.

Red, the social media platform, censored a post by the daughter of the man who died of a heart attack because “it contained negative information about the company,” according to a screenshot on his account.

In Xi’an, no author like Fang Fang writes his Wuhan lockdown diary, no citizen reporter Chen Qiushi, Fang Bin, or Zhang Zhan publishes videos. The four of them were silenced, detained, missing, or left to die in prison – sending a strong message to anyone who dared to talk about Xi’an.

The only detailed and widely circulated article on the Xi’an lockdown was written by former reporter Zhang Wenmin, a resident of Xi’an known by her pseudonym, Jiang Xue. Her article has since been deleted and state security officials have warned her not to comment further on it, according to a person close to her. Some social media users called out its garbage that it should be removed.

A few Chinese publications which had written excellent investigative articles from Wuhan did not send reporters to Xi’an because they could not get passes to walk freely under lockdown, people familiar with with the situation.

The Xi’an lockdown debacle did not appear to convince many in China to abandon the country’s unrestricted approach to controlling the pandemic.

A former athlete with a disability and a range of illnesses cursed Fang Fang for his Wuhan diary in 2020. Last month, he posted on his Weibo account that he couldn’t buy drugs because his complex in Xi ‘an was locked. His problems have been resolved, and now he uses the hashtag #everyoneinpositiveenergy and retweets posts that attack Ms. Zhang, the former reporter.

Although it announced the city’s battle against the virus as a victory last week, the government is not loosening much of the rules and is setting the bar very high to end the lockdown. The Shaanxi party secretary told Xi’an officials on Monday that their future efforts to control the pandemic should remain “strict.”

“A needle-sized loophole can channel high winds,” he said.

Claire Fu contributed research.

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