Strange Days in Shanghai

Publication: China Brief Volume: 22 Issue: 7

The typically crowded intersection of North Shaanxi Road and Nanjing West Road is devoid of traffic on April 1 in Jing’an District, downtown Shanghai (source: The Paper)

Over the past two years, deserted cityscapes have become a distressingly common sight, but the images of totally empty thoroughfares in the usually pulsating city of Shanghai are striking (The Paper, April 2). By late March, government authorities reported that Shanghai had recorded 30,000 COVID-19 cases (Xinhuanet, April 1). After failing to isolate the mushrooming outbreak through localized lockdowns, the Shanghai municipal government implemented a phased, city-wide lockdown beginning on March 28 (Shanghai Municipal Health Commission, March 27). The vast majority of the 26 million inhabitants in the province-level municipality, which is China’s financial center and largest city, are now confined to their homes.

The Chinese government has been able to maintain its restrictive zero-COVID approach for over two years without engendering mass popular frustration in part because large-scale lockdowns in China’s biggest East Coast cities have largely been averted; that is until recently.  In late December and January, Xi’an, Tianjin, and several other big cities were placed under lockdowns. This was a clear indication that the Omicron variant’s arrival in China presents a severe challenge to the government’s “dynamic clearance” (动态清零, dongtai qingling) policy, which seeks to achieve a zero-infection rate among the population (China Brief, January 14).

On March 27, the Shanghai Leadership Small Group for Epidemic Prevention, under guidance from the Central Government’s National Health Commission, opted to conduct mass testing of all 26 million city residents (Xinhuanet, April 2). The municipal government implemented a phased lockdown in order to carry out testing and isolate cases. From March 28-31, ten million residents of Pudong on the western side of the Huangpu river were placed under stay-at-home restrictions; and from April 1-5, 16 million residents east of the Huangpu in Puxi were ordered into lockdown. The testing has underscored the severity of the current outbreak in Shanghai. On Thursday, 19,982 new COVID-19 cases were reported, which set a record for the sixth straight day (South China Morning Post, April 7). As a result of these spiraling cases numbers, millions of residents in Pudong, where stay-at-home mandates were supposed to have been lifted by March 31, and nearly all of those in Puxi, remain under lockdown orders.

Collateral Damage

The municipal government’s lockdown order mandated the closure of all government offices, and private workplaces except for those involved in epidemic prevention or provision of essential goods and services (Shanghai Municipal Health Commission, March 27). Unsurprisingly, the requirement that all nonessential businesses close or shift to work-from-home operations has hit the city’s economy hard. In a recent survey conducted by the American Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai: 99 percent of businesses reported the ongoing outbreak has had a negative impact on their operations. Around 82 percent of manufacturers have experienced production shortfalls due to lack of employees, supply shortages, and work disruptions due to government epidemic prevention restrictions (AmCham Shanghai, April 1).

In its guidance on implementing the lockdown, the Shanghai Municipal Health Commission stressed the need to ensure uninterrupted medical services including for pregnant women and patients with serious health conditions (Shanghai Municipal Health Commission, March 27). This was clearly an attempt to avoid issues during past lockdowns, such as in Xi’an earlier this year, when individuals suffering medical emergencies were denied care. Despite this official guidance, numerous complaints have circulated online concerning family members who were unable to access emergency medical care, due to hospital closures, or because they were diverted from urgent care to COVID-19 testing or quarantine centers (Human Rights Watch, April 6). In one particularly tragic account, a Weibo user described how his 77 year old father tested positive for COVID-19 and was diverted from hemodialysis treatment for kidney disease to an isolation unit (Weibo, March 29). While in quarantine, the man received no hemodialysis for several days, and died of renal failure as a result. To add insult to injury, the man’s son noted that he received a call from the Shanghai Centers for Disease Control (CDC) informing him that his father was alive and receiving urgent care, when he had actually already been dead for 12 hours.

As with past mass lockdowns, ensuring adequate food supply to an enormous urban population confined to their homes is a major logistical challenge. Currently, food delivery service availability varies across the city. Some Shanghai residents have reported trying dozens of applications and still being unable to procure any kind of food (Twitter, April 1). Sometimes, app users reported that they could purchase cakes, sweets or pet food, but not staples like rice and vegetables, which suggests supply as well as delivery issues. Even those who have been briefly permitted to leave their homes to purchase essentials reported completely empty shelves due to hoarding (Weibo April 8). Some people have even resorted to foraging. After several residents fell ill after eating toxic weeds that they had mistaken for leeks, authorities sent out an emergency notification urging people not to pick roadside vegetables due to the risk of food poisoning (Twitter, April 1).

Viral Anger

Despite the extensive state security and censorship apparatuses in China, public outbursts of dissatisfaction with the government’s epidemic prevention policies have occurred and been captured in videos circulating on social media. For example, at one housing complex, which has been under lockdown since March 2 and has undergone ten rounds of testing, residents massed near the gates shouting demands into a loudspeaker at white-clad health workers: “We want to eat,” “We want to go to work,” and “We have a right to know.” (Quicktake, April 1). In addition, on social media sites such as Weibo and Tencent, open criticism of government health policies has occurred, and in many cases, gone uncensored. On Monday, videos of unsupervised crowds scuffling for food, water, and blankets were shared extensively on WeChat and Weibo (What’s On Weibo, April 4). The chaotic scenes spurred shocked netizens to express their frustrations with local authorities. One Weibo user asked “Where is the Nanhui District government?” Another asserted that “there is no public order at all, what is the point of such chaotic epidemic prevention work?” (Weibo, April 4).

Last weekend, the state-run magazine China Philanthropist (中国慈善家, Zhongguo cishan jia) published an article detailing how infants and young children in Shanghai with COVID-19 have been separated from their families and placed in isolation facilities over their parents’ objections (China Philanthropist, April 2). The story recounted the ordeal of a mother referred to by the alias “Zhao Qian” (赵倩), who along with her husband and infant daughter tested positive for COVID-19. Although Zhao was originally kept with her daughter, they were separated on March 29, and her daughter was moved to the “Jinshan Infant and Toddler Isolation Point” (金山婴幼儿隔离点, Jinshan ying you’er geli dian). Zhao protested being separated from her daughter, but health workers responded that they were implementing a “government regulation,” which would be carried out with or without her consent. When Zhao sought updates on her daughter’s status via the health center’s WeChat, the only update she received was that her child was “OK.” The China Philanthropist story cited another mother who noted the large ratio of children to healthcare workers in the infant isolation facilities, and estimated that one nurse must have to care for ten children.

As news of these family separations spread, social media outrage mounted. For example, a Tencent post acknowledged the difficulties facing health authorities but stressed that “parents and children cannot be separated under any circumstances” (Tencent, April 2). Written from a concerned parent’s perspective, the post analyzes not only the emotional toll of family separation, but also details how the infant and toddler isolation centers are an inherently dangerous environment for young children. The post dissects pictures of the center revealing numerous dangers to young children, including inadequate adult supervision, fall risks due to high beds, danger of strangulation from loose bedding, and high risk of skin infections resulting from unchanged diapers and generally poor sanitary conditions.

On April 2, the Shanghai Municipal Health Commission issued a public notice responding to popular outrage over revelations of the infant and toddler isolation centers. The notice sought to assuage public anxiety by claiming that the photos circulating online of crowded, short-staffed facilities were not actually of the Jinshan Infant and Toddler Isolation Point, but of the hospital’s pediatric ward (Xinhuanet, April 3). Nevertheless, the notice admitted that the pandemic has presented challenges that necessitate further adjustments including more effective ward management, improved communication with parents, and better treatment of pediatric patients. Starting on April 5, the Shanghai government sought to limit parent-child separations by establishing a new quarantine facility that allows infected parents to remain with children under age seven (Duowei News, April 6). However, concerns persist over continued separation of infected or exposed children from parents without COVID-19.

A Truth-Teller

Just as the severity of the initial Wuhan outbreak in January 2020 was highlighted by a courageous whistleblower, Dr. Li Wenliang, a truthteller has emerged who epitomizes growing public frustration with the current situation in Shanghai. On April 2, a recorded phone call between a Shanghai resident concerning his parents’ difficulties with the health system, and a CDC official named Zhu Weiping (朱谓萍) went viral (Tencent, April 4). The resident begins the call complaining that his father has received inconsistent COVID-19 testing results. He then notes that while in quarantine, his mother stayed with eight other people in a hospital room without a shower for a week. She was also forced to stand in the cold for several hours in transfer to a “makeshift hospital” (方舱医院, fangcang yiyuan). In response, the CDC official acknowledged that the health code system was manipulated. She also explained that authorities’ insistence on placing people with mild or no symptoms in quarantine centers was not based on professional medical guidance, but on political motivations. Interestingly, the caller noted he was recording the conversation to which Zhu willingly consented.

Following the viral complaint call, the Shanghai CDC quickly issued new employee guidance on effective citizen consultation services. The notice stressed that staff must respond to citizens’ concerns without diverging from national and municipal epidemic prevention policies (Duowei News, April 3).

No Let Up

Despite the immense economic disruption and extensive hardship caused by China’s zero-COVID orthodoxy, the government appears unlikely to change course. As President Xi Jinping seeks to lock-in a third leadership term this fall, the efficacy of many of his signature policies has come under intense scrutiny, and some have even been moved to the backburner. For example, “Common Prosperity” (Xi’s initiative to reduce China’s enormous wealth gap) was a dominant theme in CCP politics throughout much of 2021, but was mentioned only once by Premier Li Keqiang in his annual Government Work Report to the National People’s Congress last month (China Brief, March 7). In the midst of the Ukraine conflict, Xi’s approach to foreign policy, which has prioritized enhancing the strategic partnership with Russia, has also come under question from fellow elites. In this pressure cooker atmosphere, Xi is likely to cling to China’s zero-COVID epidemic prevention approach as a major policy success, despite mounting evidence to the contrary. In his March 17 address to the Politburo Standing Committee, Xi stated “we must adhere to [the policy of] dynamic clearance in order to curb the spread of the epidemic as quickly as possible” (Gov.cn, March 28).

As the outbreak rages in Shanghai, authorities show no signs of changing course. In her visit to Shanghai this week, Vice Premier Sun Chunlan, who is overseeing the government’s epidemic prevention response, urged the construction of more makeshift hospitals and quarantine facilities (Global Times, April 7). In line with this directive, the National Exhibition and Convention Center is currently being converted in to a massive fangcang hospital with room for 40,000 beds (Xinhua, April 5). In ordinary times, the venue hosts China’s International Import Expo. This in some ways is an analogy for Shanghai’s experience in microcosm. A place that was once China’s window on the world, has now been walled off. Whether this isolation is temporary or permanent will ultimately be determined not by what transpires in Shanghai, but in Beijing.

John S. Van Oudenaren is Editor-in-Chief of China Brief. For any comments, queries, or submissions, please reach out to him at: [email protected].