China Covid-19: What Xi’an’s chaotic lockdown reveals about uncompromising top-down bureaucracy

Xi’an was placed under strict lockdown orders on December 23 in a drastic attempt to contain the spread of a rapidly growing Covid cluster. But in the days and weeks that followed, a steady stream of complaints about food shortages, as well as heartbreaking scenes of critical patients – including heavily pregnant women – being denied medical treatment shocked the nation.

Many remembered the traumatic first days of the pandemic in Wuhan, the original epicenter where 11 million people were confined to their homes for months in 2020.

China has since relied on a combination of mass testing, instant lockdowns and extensive quarantine measures to stamp out the new outbreaks. This zero Covid strategy has succeeded in protecting the country from the worst of the pandemic, potentially saving millions of lives and gaining overwhelming public support.

To date, China has officially reported only 4,636 Covid-related deaths, compared to 829,740 in the United States and 173,248 in the United Kingdom. (Although some scientists have pointed out the differences in methodology adopted by each country to count deaths from Covid.)

The ruling Communist Party has presented this success as proof that its authoritarian one-party political model is superior to Western democracies, which have struggled to control their epidemics.

But at the same time, the tragedies unfolding in Xi’an also stem from the same top-down political system, which demands absolute loyalty, tolerates no dissent, and places the interests of the whole well above the rights of individuals.

As Beijing is determined to reach its zero Covid target, local authorities often pledge to do ‘whatever it takes’ to bring cases down to zero – causing great disruption in daily life and sometimes even harming those that they are supposed to protect.

“Nobody cares what you die of – other than Covid-19,” one Chinese social media user wrote this week.

Yanzhong Huang, senior global health researcher at the Council on Foreign Relations, describes the phenomenon as “toxic politics.”

“Over the past decades, the public policy process – in terms of agenda setting, policy formulation and implementation – in China has continued to be top-down, non-participatory, impromptu and mobilizing,” he said. he declared.

“This has made it easier for local leaders to impose these policy measures on society, which is essentially unable to negotiate with the state in policy development and implementation.”

In a way, Xi’an’s dysfunction is no exception. Complaints of disproportionately harsh measures abound during previous prolonged shutdowns in other comparatively smaller areas, from cities in the western Xinjiang region to the southern border town of Ruili. But in Xi’an, such problems have taken place in a much more extreme form, on a much larger scale, and have attracted much more attention.

“People like to use Shanghai as a kind of point of reference,” said Huang, referring to the Chinese financial center widely praised for its cool-headed and targeted response to Covid. “But they forgot that Shanghai is actually a rare case due to its relatively strong bureaucratic capacity.”

“When capacity is low, government officials are more likely to turn to brutal, indiscriminate and even excessive measures that dramatically increase the cost of implementing this (zero-Covid) strategy,” he said. said, citing Xi’an as an example. .

Over the past week, authorities in Xi’an have faced a public outcry over the draconian lockdown measures that have barred critical patients from receiving emergency medical treatment. Heavily pregnant woman reportedly miscarried on New Years Day after being refused entry by a hospital because she did not have a valid Covid test. A young woman claimed to have lost her father to a heart attack following a very delayed rescue, after they were turned away by hospitals because they came from a “medium risk area ” from the city.

In an interview with state newspaper The Paper, the woman who lost her father said she was determined to seek answers.

“The warden said he was doing his job; The nurse said she was doing his job; The hospital said he was doing his job. From the point of view of all the requirements of prevention and control of the epidemic, no one was at fault. So who is making the problem lie with? ” she asked.

Xi'an lockdown outcry tests the limits of China's zero Covid policy

To allay public fury, the Chinese Communist Party moved quickly to announce a series of sanctions: Hospital directors were suspended or removed from their posts, while the city’s top public health officials received disciplinary warnings.

At a press conference on Thursday, Liu Shunzhi, head of the Xi’an Municipal Health Commission, bowed and apologized to the woman who lost her child, as well as to other patients who have had problems accessing medical care.

And the upper echelon of the party also weighed. Sun Chunlan, a Politburo member and deputy prime minister overseeing China’s response to Covid, stressed Thursday that public access to medical services “must not be denied under any excuse.”

“We are deeply saddened and sorry to see such problems occur, which has exposed the lack of rigor in prevention and control work, and the lesson runs deep,” Sun said as quoted by state media. . “The initial goal of epidemic prevention and control is to keep people healthy and to protect lives.”

By blaming local officials for not doing their job well, Sun has swept aside a deeper root cause that has driven Xi’an authorities to such extremes in implementing the lockdown – namely the enormous political pressure. to achieve the central government’s zero-Covid goal.

Across China, hundreds of local officials have been fired or punished for failing to bring Covid outbreaks under control in their communities. As the Lunar New Year and the Beijing Winter Olympics approach, this pressure has only intensified.

Meanwhile, the Chinese political system has become even more top-down under President Xi Jinping, who demanded absolute loyalty from the vast bureaucracy. Local governments are required to always follow the line of the central party leadership and carry out their instructions to the letter. As a result, the room for healthy political debates and flexibility in implementation has shrunk considerably.

Press freedom and civil society in China are also shrinking rapidly, which could potentially have alerted a crisis early on. Even during the initial outbreak in Wuhan, some relatively outspoken state media published hard-hitting reports and managed to draw attention to the issues on the ground, while citizens across China organized to help. people in need. But the space for independent reporting and social organization has been even more constrained in the past two years, as a wave of nationalism engulfs the country.

In previous outbreaks, when criticism of the harsh lockdown measures has risen online, they have often been urged to ‘think about the big picture’ – namely the country’s zero Covid ambitions.

But since the Xi’an lockdown, more and more people are starting to think about the sacrifices individuals are being asked to make – and whether they are worth it.

Zhang Wenmin, a former investigative journalist who lives in Xi’an, publicly questioned the official slogan “we must do this at all costs”.

“It might sound great, but zooming in more specifically on the individual level, as an ordinary person we might want to ask: are we the ‘we’ here, or are we the ‘cost’ that needs to be paid? she asked in a widely shared article recounting her first 10 days in lockdown, written under her pseudonym Jiang Xue.

“In this world, no one is an island, the death of everyone is the death of everyone,” she wrote. “The virus has not killed any people in this city, but there is a real possibility that other things have.”

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