Shanghai is China’s most populous city, a place marked by an expansive worldview and keen sense of its own identity. But now it is chafing at Beijing’s rigid containment methods designed in accordance with the national zero-COVID policy.
Since a wave of infections struck the metropolis of some 25 million people last month, Shanghai officials have imposed a temporary lockdown (March 28), designed a policy separating infected children from their parents (April 2), extended the lockdown indefinitely (April 5), buckled before a public outcry to ease the child-parent separation policy (April 6) and seen the daily count of new cases hit a record 22,000 (April 8).
Viral videos appear to show residents tackling health workers in hazmat suits and charging through a barricaded street shouting “We want to eat cheap vegetables,” according to France24. Some residents are facing the mandatory tests “in very Shanghainese style” tweeted one.
What are thought to be government drones whir through residential areas urging people against the temptation to break out from lockdown.
And local authorities have reported more than 73,000 cases in the current wave, virtually all originating with the omicron BA.2 variant, which is more infectious but less lethal than the previous delta strain as evidenced by the lack of any reported deaths in the city.
Shanghai Lingang Fangcai Hospital officially opened on April 5 with nearly 14,000 beds, half of which are already available. Authorities are converting the National Exhibition and Convention Center into a temporary hospital with more than 40,000 beds.
The Global Times, a state-controlled media outlet, reported April 6 that more than 38,000 medical personnel from more than 10 provinces in China had been dispatched to Shanghai to help along with more than 2,000 from the People’s Liberation Army.
When Chinese Vice Premier Sun Chunlan visited the city on April 2, she stressed “unswerving adherence” to Beijing’s zero-COVID policy, a control measure China has put in place throughout the country since 2020 to curb the spread of the virus.
"It is an arduous task and huge challenge to combat the omicron variant while maintaining the normal operation of core functions in a megacity with a population of 25 million," Sun said, according to Chinese state-controlled media outlet, Xinhua.
According to Ren Ruihong, the former head of the medical relief department of the Red Cross Foundation of China, the probability of China achieving “zero infection goal” is almost zero judging from the movement of the omicron variant through the nation.
“You can't test everyone in the entire country every day. When you can't do that, a lot of asymptomatic or late-infected people have already spread the virus," Ren told VOA Mandarin.
On Thursday, Human Rights Watch said on its website that Beijing’s insistence on draconian lockdown measures has significantly impeded people’s access to health care, food and other life necessities in Shanghai.
“The Chinese government’s ‘Zero-COVID’ approach to pandemic control by imposing stringent citywide lockdowns has resulted in the systematic denial of medical needs of people with serious but non-COVID related illnesses,” said Yaqiu Wang, senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch.
According to HRW’s statement, an unknown number of people have died after being denied medical treatment for their non-COVID related illnesses.
‘Completely chaotic’ response
Shanghai officials also expressed their disappointment in the implementation of Beijing’s zero-COVID measures in Shanghai.
"Shanghai's epidemic-prevention policy is completely chaotic," said a community management committee secretary in a nine-minute recorded conversation circulated on Chinese social media, adding that the prevention work she has been assigned is “killing” her.
In another recording of a conversation between a Shanghai citizen and a frontline epidemic-prevention official, the official urged the resident not to go to a hospital and said that mild and asymptomatic patients should be isolated at home.
“When I went to the Fangcang shelter hospital, even the professionals were going crazy because no one listened to what they said,” according to the official speaking to the resident in an audio since deleted from Chinese social media. "Now we all feel complete despair."
Lin Baohua, a former professor at East China Normal University in Shanghai who now lives in Taiwan, told VOA Mandarin that recent signs indicate that grassroots officials in Shanghai are becoming sympathetic to Shanghai residents' dissatisfaction.
The last thing the Beijing government wants to see is the collective action of the people, he added.
Xiao Shan, a Chinese news analyst in Beijing, said Shanghai officials are unlikely to oppose the zero-COVID policy, as they have used it to consolidate their power.
“Suddenly they could become managers overnight, wearing red armbands shouting to hundreds of thousands of people in the community.”
Fan Shihping, a Taiwan Normal University professor, told VOA Mandarin that China's enforcement will have a great impact on Shanghai residents because they did not expect that they, citizens of a Tier 1 city, would be treated in the same way under the zero-COVID policy as residents of second- and third-tier cities.
Tier 1 cities, like Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou and Shenzhen, are the most modern, the most populous and have the best infrastructure and locations, according to Investor Insights Asia. Tier 2 cities are relatively economically developed but less so than new first-tier cities. Tier 3 cities have large populations but little economic or political significance.
Some Shanghai residents have refused to hide their dissatisfaction with the government’s strict COVID measures.
“This is worse than the Cultural Revolution,” said an old man in a video circulated on social media.
Mao, the first leader of the People’s Republic of China from 1949-76, launched the Chinese Cultural Revolution in 1966. By the time its turmoil ended a decade later, between 500,000 and 2 million people had died.
“Parks are not open. Shops are not open. We haven’t experienced a horror like this even when the Red Sun, Mao Zedong, died in 1976,” the man continued. "Now I don't go out and I'm stuck in prison all day.”