Trash collectors
© Getty Images
Collecting trash in Shenzhen, China
Another Covid-19 lockdown, another angry confrontation. This time it was on the streets of Shenzhen, China's high-tech hub, where videos this week showed an angry crowd facing off against police officers wearing protective medical gear, including blue gowns, masks and plastic visors. 'Lift the lockdown', the protesters yelled, pushing against hastily erected barricades. Some threw plastic bottles at the police. In one clip, a woman can be heard shouting, 'The police are hitting people'.

The protest, one of several reported in the city, followed an order for residents of three districts to stay at home after just ten infections were detected. Subway stations were closed, and affected areas cordoned off. The city of 18 million people, which is located next to Hong Kong, has faced a series of lockdowns this month. Covid outbreaks have been reported in more than 100 cities since early September.

The authorities have stepped up their ruthless and often chaotic restrictions ahead of a key meeting of the Chinese Communist Party next month, at which Xi Jinping is expected to be anointed as party boss for an unprecedented third term. 'Defeating' the virus has become central to the cult of Xi, for whom it is a measure of the CCP's superiority over bungling western democracies. Party propaganda has gone into overdrive ahead of the congress. The Chinese people have faced a barrage of slogans relayed online, as well as on television and by loudspeaker, urging them to 'Extinguish every outbreak!' and telling them that 'History will remember those who contributed'.

This weekend is the beginning of China's week-long National day holiday, usually a time when tens of millions travel. Instead they are being urged to stay at home, and those still planning to travel to Beijing, where the CCP's congress is to be held, must show a negative PCR test result taken within 48 hours of travel and take two more tests within three days of arrival.

Another slogan, 'We have won the great battle against Covid' is clearly a little premature, but it neatly sums up the party's obsession with zero-Covid. And although the policy is widely regarded as nonsensical among medical experts inside and outside China, to publicly question it is to question Xi, and that is a dangerous thing to do in today's China.

The Chinese people have faced a barrage of slogans relayed online, as well as on television and by loudspeaker, urging them to 'Extinguish every outbreak!'

The economic costs continue to mount. Shenzhen's Nanshan district, where many high-tech companies are located was put under semi-lockdown earlier in September. The city is also sensitive to developments in neighbouring Hong Kong, which is abandoning its attempts to mimic the strict policies of the mainland, in spite of continuing outbreaks. Hong Kong is abandoning quarantine requirements for inbound travellers, which have been blamed for an exodus of talent and undermining the city's international status. Today it announced a further easing of social distancing rules, including lifting a restaurant cap that had restricted groups to six per table. Now 12 can dine together.

The anger in Shenzhen was particularly strong, but the frustration at endless lockdowns is widely shared. A video emerged earlier in September of shoppers in a Shanghai branch of IKEA stampeding towards the exits, barging security officers out of the way after the authorities tried to seal off the store and send everybody in it to quarantine. It was a typically heavy-handed response after it was claimed that a shopper had been exposed to a six-year-old who had an asymptomatic dose of Covid-19. The grim experience of a two month lockdown in Shanghai earlier this year, which saw deaths because of lack of access to health care and food shortages as people were barricaded in their homes, still festers in China's financial capital.

Early September also saw Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province, and a city of 21 million people, locked down after the discovery of just six cases. Not even a 6.8 magnitude earthquake, which killed at least 65 people, persuaded the authorities to allow residents out of their shaken apartment blocks. Video footage circulating online showed officials wearing full protective gear preventing residents of one block from leaving from their locked lobby.

Chengdu is also the home of Hu Zhimin, a prominent poet, who has not been heard from since she penned an oblique satire on the CCP and its forthcoming congress. The last thing she reported before her social media accounts were deleted was that she had been 'invited to tea', a euphemism for being hauled before the security police. Her poem was called 'Waiting for the Wind', and in it she wrote:
'We have no idea if it will be an east wind or a west wind, this autumn .. a wind that blows forwards, or one that blows backwards. We are just waiting here like puppets... to hear our fate; ours personally, as well as that of the country.'
There could not be a more poignant verdict on the China of Xi Jinping, and the widespread helplessness, frustration and anger resulting from his continued obsession with zero Covid.
About the Author:
Ian Williams is a former foreign correspondent for Channel 4 News and NBC, and author of The Fire of the Dragon: China's New Cold War (Birlinn).