COVID lockdowns in Beijing, Guangzhou, Shanghai and around country

Politics & Current Affairs

What is really going on in China with COVID?

Illustration for SupChina by Derek Zheng

China is battling its most serious outbreak of COVID-19 since the pandemic began over two years ago. The rise of more transmissible variants, such as Omicron and the new BA.2 strain, are putting the nation’s long held COVID-zero policy to the test.

Shanghai is treading water

Shanghai has entered its second week of the lockdown imposed on March 28. The city hit a new high for the tenth straight day, with another 26,087 cases announced on Monday and a total of more than 130,000 cases reported in the current outbreak.

  • On Monday, officials eased lockdown restrictions in some areas, as authorities adjust and reclassify districts and residential units to correspond with the severity of COVID-19 cases.
  • The city on Sunday discharged over 11,000 recovered COVID-19 patients, and officials said people from some 7,000 residential communities with no positive COVID-19 infections in the past seven days would be allowed out within a certain area.

People are running out of food. With the city’s 26 million residents banned from leaving their homes, buying basic food supplies has become almost impossible, as online delivery services are “totally overwhelmed” trying to keep up with the surge in demand.

  • Weibo removed the hashtag “Buying groceries in Shanghai” #上海买菜 from the Chinese internet last week, with many decrying the decision as an attempt by the platform to curb public backlash over the mismanagement of the outbreak.
  • Logistics companies and online grocery stores are adding staff in locked-down areas, heeding new directives from the government to boost delivery capacity.
  • Some have raised concerns over the cultural resistance against canned goods, and how the Chinese preference for fresh produce has compounded the shortage in food.
  • “We absolutely cannot abide any hunger*. You can do a lot to Chinese — you’ve seen us put up with a lot, but hunger we will not. Whether it’s an epigenetic legacy I can’t say but the memory of famine is firmly burned into the Chinese collective consciousness,” Naomi Wu, who has interviewed with SupChina in the past, wrote on Twitter.

Shanghai’s lockdown is a doubling down of Beijing on COVID-zero, despite signals earlier this year that China might shift its pandemic playbook.

  • Some have alleged that Beijing wasn’t too happy about Shanghai’s more lenient virus containment measures, claiming that Vice Premier Sūn Chūnlán 孙春兰 was dispatched in a “showdown against Shanghai’s attempt to move toward coexistence with the virus.”
  • Three local officials in Shanghai have been sacked over failing to properly manage the city’s response to the outbreak.
  • Some rumors have swirled on whether mass testing may have exacerbated the spread of the virus. ​​”The fact is that a neighborhood that had been testing negative for 12 days began to turn positive, with new positive cases coming in every day,” a Shanghai neighborhood committee worker wrote in a diary of her experience per Chang Che, who writes for SupChina.
  • Foreign ministry spokesperson Zhào Lìjiān 赵立坚 condemned the U.S. for its “groundless accusations” at China’s pandemic policy, after the United States released a travel advisory on April 8 warning of the “arbitrary enforcement” of local laws and COVID-19-related restrictions in China.

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Meanwhile, frustration and agony continued to boil over for Shanghai residents as the lockdown dragged on. Hú Xījìn 胡锡进, the retired editor of state-run Global Times, wrote on social media on Saturday that he had seen the videos of protests in Shanghai and understood that residents without supplies had reached “emotional tipping points,” per the New York Times.

Here’s a compilation of some articles and social media posts that gained traction in the past few days:

Ordinary people are bearing the consequences of official blunders: A 19-minute audio recording — which went viral on Sunday before being censored across Chinese social media — captures a confrontation between a Shanghai couple who insisted that they were COVID-free and a police officer who claimed they had tested positive for the virus, saying that he was sent by local health authorities to take them to a makeshift hospital. According to the woman, her daughter had tested positive at one point and was taken away under the city’s controversial policy of isolating infected children away from their parents. But the little girl’s result, she said, later turned out to be incorrect due to a mix-up of samples in mass testing. Despite the couple’s explanation and request to undergo another test to prove their health status, the police officer refused to budge and ended up sending them to the facility. “You are [positive] if I say so,” he was caught saying at one point during the argument.

Tapes and locks to keep people imprisoned in their apartments: On Sunday, Weibo user Little bamboo 1930 (@小竹子1930) shared two photos showing that her apartment building had been locked from the outside. “Xuhui District! Who gave you the right to unlawfully confine residents? No legal process. No prior notice,” she wrote in a post that contained the pictures.

“We are very concerned about emergency exits being blocked, but no one responded to our inquiries.” Elsewhere in the city, people complained (in Chinese) that tapes were fastened to their apartment doors, some of which were removed later due to strong opposition from residents. “What a waste of resources and labor. In the meantime, our needs for more essential supplies are never met,” one person wrote (in Chinese) on Weibo.

Horrendous conditions at makeshift hospitals: At this point, it’s no longer a secret that a significant portion of Shanghai’s makeshift hospitals are hastily built and poorly equipped to serve COVID patients properly, but a series of posts shared by people at those facilities in the past few days revealed that the real situation was even worse than many people had imagined.

In one Weibo post, a woman in her seventies revealed (in Chinese) that the public bathrooms at her quarantine location were unbearably disgusting and that she was assigned to a bed without sheets or blankets when she first arrived. “I don’t know why my hospital looks nothing like those shown on television. The difference is worlds apart,” she wrote. In another post (in Chinese), a young woman who has spent the past two weeks at a makeshift hospital wrote that she never had the chance to take a shower or change her clothes. “I don’t have any dignity here. This is my real life at a makeshift facility and it has been a nightmare,” she wrote.

Even well-connected, influential people are not immune to medical tragedies caused by COVID-19 measures: Láng Xiánpíng 郎咸平, a well-known Chinese economist, said on Weibo today that his 98-year-old mother in Shanghai died from a kidney disease after waiting four hours outside a local hospital for her COVID test result, a requirement for doctor visits under Shanghai’s COVID policies. “I didn’t want to use the space of public discourse to discuss my family matters, but I felt obligated to give an explanation since rumors were swirling around,” he wrote (in Chinese). “I didn’t get to see my mother for the last time before she passed away. I hope this sort of tragedy won’t happen again and I thank people for all their condolences.”

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Guangzhou readies…

Guangzhou, a major commercial hub northwest of Hong Kong and home to China’s busiest airport, will test its population of 18 million people after only 27 cases were reported on Monday.

  • All 11 districts of the city announced plans for the testing beginning from April 8, state-run news broadcaster CCTV announced. Since April 8, the city has registered a total of 61 local infections in the latest outbreak.
  • Primary and middle schools will revert to online learning, some residential communities have been partially sealed, and an exhibition center is being converted into a makeshift hospital to accommodate citywide testing.
  • Only citizens with a “definite need” and who have procured a negative COVID test within 48 hours of departure may leave Guangzhou, city spokesperson Chén bīn 陈斌 said in a social media announcement.

Residents are rushing to stockpile food, with reports of both in-person and online supermarkets being emptied out over the weekend, amid fears that they will suffer the same lockdown fate and supply shortages that have pummeled people in Shanghai.

… as does Beijing

Beijing city has introduced its strictest COVID measures since the early stages of the pandemic, as officials seek to curb the spread of the virus from infiltrating the Chinese capital.

  • Authorities imposed stricter rules on those entering or leaving the city, expanding testing and lengthy quarantine requirements to include low-risk areas.
  • Beijing has ordered all provincial-level governments to keep airports, harbors and highways open so that transport and logistics can continue to operate.
  • Erjiefang, an area in the Chaoyang District in Beijing, was classified as high risk for COVID-19 on Saturday, per state-run news agency Xinhua. A total of eight locally confirmed cases have been reported in the area in the past 14 days, as of midnight on Friday.

Meanwhile, in tandem with the residents of Guangzhou, Beijingers are preparing for their turn in the lockdown carousel. They see daily reports about cases in Shanghai and videos on social media (before they’re deleted) of hunger and anger, and who can blame them for whispering to each other about stockpiling food and anticipating the worst.

Even in the earliest days of the novel coronavirus in early 2020, Beijing’s “lockdown” was never rigidly enforced, and never came close to these levels of desperation. But now in WeChat groups, people are talking about which highways have been shut down in other provinces and which roads in Beijing we can expect to be blockaded.

This is social media, so information is unverified and there is much need for skepticism, but the emotions are undeniable. “We’re really going to tank the economy this year, huh?” one person writes. Another: “Is this still for epidemic prevention?” People are sharing links related to pet care and where to get PCR tests.

Official preparations are being made in embassies. Last Friday, the U.S. Department of State let non-emergency U.S. government employees in Shanghai take non-emergency leave, and many companies (though not all) are letting employees work from home.

That there isn’t panic on the streets — nor much fear about the virus itself. People are not emptying shelves of toilet paper, and life is proceeding as normal across most of Beijing. Some residential compounds have been locked down, but it is still permitted to take public transportation (with masks) and go out to bars and restaurants.

Follow our coverage of the Shanghai lockdown.

Nadya Yeh