Is insisting on “Zero Covid,” an early rehearsal for total social control?
“The man in line for the nucleic acid test1 was struck by lightning and died.” This is a huge absurdity in the Chinese context and as much a metaphor as anything else. It is said, “Why do those who deserve to die not die, but those who do not deserve to die?” Meaning that the dictator who caused all this is unharmed.
For the Communist Party, one observer argues, this is a benefit that the government doesn’t want to say out loud: “zero” epidemic control is an early rehearsal. The government has gained considerable experience should a situation arise that requires full control.
In China, the opinions of the people will have no impact on the outcome of the upcoming 20th National Congress. But their own lives are suffering a great loss because of the upcoming Congress.
By Sharon – Exclusive to Probe International
On the evening of August 30, Beijing time, many people in my WeChat circle started to forward the news that the 20th Communist Party Congress would be held on October 16, 2022. “The boots are finally on the ground.” Some people said. There were many rumours that the 20th Communist Party Congress would be delayed, but this news proves that the legendary “delay” caused by the internal political struggle of the Communist Party did not occur. The “Nineteenth Congress” of 2017, in which Xi Jinping amended the Constitution to cement his indefinite re-election was held on October 18 of that year.
Many people in the circle of friends flirted with the idea that the “20th National Congress” should be held soon, preferably tomorrow. The meeting announcement trumpeted that “China has achieved a great victory against the epidemic.” So, netizens responded, “Please hurry up and stop doing nucleic acid for all people every day, no more tossing the people, tossing the economy, people can no longer afford it! The people agree with all the contents of your conference, just please, please leave us alone.”
Yes, this is probably the mindset of many Chinese people. This Communist Party Congress, which is widely considered to be the key meeting that will determine if Xi Jinping will be granted rule-without-end, is hardly a chance for the Chinese people to have any real input, and the people’s opinions will have no impact on the outcome of this Congress. But their own lives are suffering a huge loss because of the upcoming conference.
1. The unstoppable “Omicron” blooms everywhere
In 2022, the Covid-19 epidemic is in its third year. While the world is choosing to live with the virus, the Chinese government is sticking to its Zero-COVID policy and taking increasingly stringent measures to control the epidemic. From China’s capital, Beijing, to the southernmost island city, Sanya, Hainan Province; from the northeastern city of Dalian to Lhasa, Tibet, on the plateau. The whole of China, and almost all of its people, are suffering from this severe control in the rare summer heat of 2022.
On August 6, 2022, Sanya, the most popular destination for tourists in Hainan Island, suddenly announced a city closure (in official parlance, a “region-wide static management”). This tourist city is located on the southernmost island of China. It is more than 2,100 kilometres from Shanghai, which was forcibly locked down for nearly four months earlier this year. It was the summer vacation period when many Shanghai citizens, after the painful city closure from March to June 2022, took their children, or the whole family, to travel to Hainan to enjoy a rare relaxation. However, because of the sudden discovery of COVID-19 cases, Sanya immediately closed the city and took extremely severe measures, stopping all flights and forbidding anyone from leaving. In Sanya alone, more than 80,000 foreign tourists were forced to “stay where you are”. It should be noted, the total number of tourists for the entire province of Hainan is 180,000. These tourists were living in hotels, bearing the high cost of hotel accommodation and food, living in hardship and without access to medical care. Flights were repeatedly cancelled, and many were forced to stay for up to 20 days without being able to return home. People complained, but these voices were rarely reported in the media, except for circulating on self-published media, which was immediately silenced.
On August 16, the Nanjing government announced that it would charter a plane to Hainan to pick up Nanjing travellers who were forced to stay in Hainan, receiving a flood of praise from people on social media. Visitors from many provinces and cities called on their home governments to charter a plane to take them home.
On August 7, there were cases in the Ali region of Tibet. Officials had reported that previously, the Tibet Autonomous Region had been free of new cases for 920 consecutive days. However, by August 17, the number of asymptomatic infections in the Tibetan region reached 2,709 cases.
Tibet immediately began to take strict control measures. From August 12, Lhasa declared a “silent management,” all stores were closed and people were not allowed to leave their neighbourhoods, almost like a “city closure,” and the tourist destination of Tibet, Shigatse and other areas were also closed. At this time, thousands of people traveling to Lhasa are blocked on the road. The reason is that the summer is the peak season for tourism in Tibet, and many mainland tourists drive their own cars to Tibet to enjoy the blue sky and white clouds, the scenery of snow-capped mountains and the folklore of Tibetan areas. The sudden blockade of Tibet left many tourists stuck on the road, unable to enter Tibet nor return home. At some cliff sides on the plateau, the vehicles that were forced to stop, formed a long line. The tourists in these cars were exposed to the scorching sun on the plateau, some had no food, no gasoline, and could not seek medical treatment when they were sick, and some were blocked on the road for as long as five or six days. To this day, flights to and from the mainland of Tibet are still not normal, and a large number of tourists and pilgrims are stranded in hotels or isolation points, or even on the roads.
In addition to these places, throughout China, the extreme heat this summer has not put an end to the virus, but on the contrary, due to the highly contagious nature of the Omicron virus, cases are emerging in almost every province. The authorities’ insistence on a Zero-COVID policy can only start by breaking the chain of infection. The most relied on approach is to close the city at every turn and “silence the whole city”. This has been the case in major cities like Tianjin, Chongqing and Chengdu, as well as in small counties in many provinces. Until under control, all residents are forced to stop all normal work and life. All stores, factories and restaurants are closed, people “work from home” and are forbidden to enter or leave their neighbourhoods. Under the most severe control measures, all residents were not allowed to go out of their homes, and all daily living supplies had to be provided by government workers and volunteers at home. Access to medical care, medicine, and food has become a huge struggle.
Many people on WeChat, a social media outlet widely relied upon by the Chinese public, lamented that their lives, or their businesses, or their jobs, were greatly affected by the lockdown that could fall from the sky at any moment. In a metropolis like Shanghai, where countless street stores have closed, life is especially difficult for the lower class.
During the city’s closure this spring, an outspoken university professor suggested on social media that if the government were to introduce a “city closure” that would prohibit everyone from going out to work, it should first cut the salaries of government employees during the closure. That way, government officials and workers will feel the hardships that ordinary people might face before making their policies.
But such a proposal is not possible in China. Because these government officials and civil servants are appointed by their superiors, not elected by the people, they cannot really think about the interests of the people.
2. The Absurd “Nucleic Acid” and the Pressure of the “20th Party Congress”
Since July, as the date of the Party’s 20th National Congress draws near, there have been many absurd things happening due to the control of the epidemic.
On August 25, 2022, at the 2022 Asian Women’s Volleyball Cup tournament, held in the Philippines, the Chinese women’s team faced Iran. For the first set of the game, all Chinese athletes on the court wore masks. As a result, the masks may have made them play poorly, so the Chinese team lost the first set to the Iranian team, which was not as strong. However, after the Chinese women took off their masks, they beat the Iranian team easily, winning three subsequent sets in a row, in a comeback to take the first place in the group.
After the match, the video of the women’s volleyball team playing with masks was widely circulated on Chinese social media. People teased and questioned the absurd decision of the sports management: it is common sense not to wear masks during intense sports, so why should sports management officials order their athletes to do so? If it is not to “prevent the epidemic,” is it grotesque performance art? Some even ask: “Is this a disguised allegiance to the Führer?” This feigned display of “epidemic prevention” is more a grotesque form of performance art.
Perhaps because of the overwhelming public reaction, the Chinese Volleyball Association, the official organization, issued an online statement 10 hours after the match, insisting that it was done “to protect the health of the players,” and so on. This provoked even more ridicule and mockery.
The “masked women’s volleyball team” incident is not the only ridiculous story. Because President Xi insists on an extreme Zero-COVID policy, epidemic prevention is the top political goal, especially with the looming “20th Congress” about to happen. As a result, government officials at all levels, answering to their superiors up the line, are willing to take all kinds of absurd measures to accomplish this task.
In China, because of the popularity of smartphones, the public behaviour of government officials is often filmed by the public. Social media often reveals absurd footage of “epidemic prevention” that feeds the anger of people.
In one video, several people fishing in a river somewhere in the south, thought to have violated “silent management rules” by going out to fish without permission, are surrounded on all sides by a group of men in white protective clothing, and one of them is handcuffed as he tries to escape. In another video, an elderly farmer working in a field is pinned to the ground by law enforcement officers for “unauthorized work.” Another peasant women, who was washing by the river, was forced to tie her arms behind her back and had her mouth forcibly pried open by epidemic prevention personnel and swabbed for nucleic acid testing.
At about 7 p.m. on August 26, a thundery evening, four people were struck by lightning in Nanling Square in Wuhu City, Anhui Province, and two of them died. The official media reported afterwards that the two deceased were dancing and working out in a square when they were struck by lightning. However, circulated via social media, the local people took photos of the scene of the electrocution, showing the local people were lining up in the square to do nucleic acid testing. While the official media is busy “dispelling the rumours” online, at the same time, they are quickly deleting the posts of the people on the Internet. People were angry and powerless, and many are roasting the Internet for media fakery.
“The man in line for nucleic acid was struck by lightning and died.” This is a huge absurdity in the Chinese context, and as much a metaphor as anything. Some say, “Why don’t the damned die, while the undeserving do?” Meaning that the dictator who caused all this is safe and sound (in Chinese legend, there is a curse that “bad people will be struck by lightning”).
It is a fact that in China, because of the absolute Zero-COVID policy, collective nucleic acid testing is not only the government’s primary means of controlling the ordinary people, but has in fact become a huge business.
In the city where I used to live, when the government asks for “full testing,” in many neighbourhoods, people are called by loudspeaker to get their nucleic acid tests from 6 a.m. onwards, and to line up downstairs to receive them. All health care workers have to be on duty, taking turns to do the nucleic acid test in each neighbourhood, so the schedule must be staggered throughout the day. Some neighbourhoods even start nucleic acid testing at 5 a.m.
This year in China, most areas are suffering extreme heat. In Chongqing and Chengdu, temperatures reached over 40 degrees Celsius, breaking historical records. The high temperatures triggered mountain fires in Chongqing while areas such as Shapingba, in Chongqing, were closed because of the cases. In a picture circulating on the Internet showing the empty and silent city, the mountain fires and smoke that filled the distance, and the crowd lining up for nucleic acid tests in a square in Chongqing were captured in a single image by an aerial camera. This scene was evaluated by netizens as a “spectacle of the world”.
Absurdity is everywhere. Epidemic prevention personnel, zippered head-to-toe in their hazmat suits, are shown in empty and deserted grassland areas and on distant snowy mountains, to show that nucleic acid tests are blanketing the country to “serve the People”. It’s propaganda at its most ludicrous.
People say that in such an era, it is necessary to rely on nucleic acid testing to “renew life”. If a person lives in a city and does not take a group nucleic acid test, he or she cannot go to public places, go to school, ride in a car, go shopping, or travel.
In many cities with cases, there are “full nucleic acid tests,” where people are tested every day for three, seven or more days in a row. Who is paying for it and who is benefiting from this huge cost? Who are the companies behind the “nucleic acid testing kiosks” that are popping up all over the streets? No one knows. Many people question the fact that nucleic acid testing has become the biggest business in today’s recession, and that this business is monopolized by government-related agencies or companies in China.
3. “Sensitive period” throughout the year
The new coronavirus has evolved to the point that by 2022, in most cases, the symptoms of Omicron virus are similar to those of a cold, and the danger has been greatly reduced. Why does Xi Jinping insist on a “Zero-Covid policy”? Many have attributed this to the upcoming 20th National Congress this fall.
In China’s political context, every major Communist Party meeting, as well as important holidays or moments, is known as a “sensitive period.” For example, during the annual “Two Sessions”2 of the Communist Party, which are supposed to be a time for political participation and discussion, the public is asked to keep their voices completely silent before the session, and any criticism that can be heard must be silenced, otherwise the “harmonious atmosphere” will be destroyed. Every year, during the “Two Sessions,” trains and planes to Beijing are subjected to more stringent security checks in order to “ensure the safety of the capital”.
Sensitive times include times as the period around June 4, or on holidays such as the July 1 Party Day, August 1 Military Day, and the National Day. In short, almost every month is a sensitive month. During these months, some political dissidents are given special warnings, and some are even accompanied by the Thought Police3 to leave Beijing for “outings” in order to remove “destabilizing factors” from Beijing.
At the Party’s October 2022 National Congress, Xi Jinping will have been the Party boss for a decade. In accordance with Communist Party practice, a new general secretary and leader should be elected, but Xi Jinping amended the constitution in 2017 to clear the legal hurdles for his unprecedented re-election.
From 2017 to 2022, under a series of Xi’s policies, China’s social controls have become increasingly stringent, with the introduction of the National Security Law in Hong Kong, the mass arrest of pro-democracy activists, and the harsh suppression of protests, all of which have led to the loss of Hong Kong’s prosperity and the serious destruction of its original rule of law and freedoms. On the mainland, in the last three years, the epidemic control has even caused the economy to sink, people’s livelihoods to wither, unemployment to surge, and the public to grieve.
Against this backdrop, there are many rumours at home and abroad that Xi’s position is not secure and that there is a serious struggle within the Communist Party. For example, in the shadow of Xi’s “leadership,” Premier Li Keqiang is in a low position, but he has always declared during his tours around the country this year that China will adhere to the market economy, using the phrase, “the Yellow River will not flow backwards.” China’s reform and opening up will not stop.
However, such voices [like Premier Li Keqiang’s] are often not reported by the official media. What has flooded the official media are all kinds of political declarations of learning Xi Jinping’s ideas and pledging allegiance to him as the “core”.
At the same time, the general public is controlled by means of epidemic control. By means of “nucleic acid tests” that must be taken continuously in order to keep the “code green,”4 all the people’s whereabouts are fully grasped by the authorities. With “Big Data,” no one can have privacy. All this, in the tense atmosphere before the “20th Congress,” can only intensify.
4. Is insisting on “zeroing in,” an advance rehearsal for full social control?
As the world moves into normal life, the situation in China is confusing: even a dictator needs a good life for the people in order to rule. Whether it is the emperors of ancient China or the Communist Party’s claim to “represent the interests of the masses,” the foundation of the economy is indispensable.
And the current measures have seriously affected the economy. The four-month-long closure of Shanghai in the spring of this year caused the international metropolis to be hit hard. A large number of businesses closed and many foreign companies withdrew. A survey showed that the unemployment rate in Shanghai was as high as 12 percent.
What good would it do the Communists if the economy collapsed? Will they really not consider the economy? As we can see from the official media reports, the Communist Party is not indifferent to this, and officials are being sent to “guide the work” and “protect the economy,” but there is no way to recover the economy without stopping the epidemic control and nucleic acid testing.
So the question is, why does Xi Jinping insist on zeroing in on the situation?
Dai Qing, a longtime critic of the Communist Party, a Chinese writer living in the country, says the reasoning is actually quite simple. One is that Xi Jinping will soon consolidate his power in China’s history, even more than Mao Zedong, at the 20th National Congress, effectively realizing his dream of becoming emperor. In such a context, he is doing everything to establish his own high authority. The “Zero-Covid policy” that he single-handedly insisted on was one of his perceived authorities. And, against the backdrop of a highly inflated ego and a cult of the individual, Xi could not possibly believe in another kind of truth. “It’s like Yuan Shikai in the late Qing Dynasty.5 His son, in order to get him restored as emperor, ran a newspaper just for him, with only him as the reader. This newspaper published only what he wanted to see. Today Xi is also surrounded by such people,” the critic said.
At the same time, she argues, there are huge interest groups in and around the Communist Party, whether it’s nucleic acid testing or vaccines, and these party-state-controlled interest groups don’t want the epidemic to end.
More importantly, in the name of “epidemic prevention,” the nucleic acid tests are linked to all the “QR code” passes, which are used to control the travel of all people with big data, and to collect privacy without fear, so that the entire population can be controlled electronically. The new system will be a great success. “China is actually a huge prison,” she said.
“It’s a political virus, and not a virus at all per se,” said another observer. For the Communist Party, he argues, it’s a benefit that’s hard to put on the table: early rehearsal in cities through “zeroing in” on epidemic control. The government has already gained considerable experience in the event of a situation requiring full control.
5. Is there a possibility of public resistance under high control?
On the evening of August 27, thousands of people gathered in the Lianfang Street block, Shapingba District, Chongqing, to protest against the epidemic controls, demanding an explanation from the government: “Why can’t the government call off the lockdown after 10 days of continuous testing that showed no positive cases of all staff and no positive cases among all residents?”
Special police rushed to the scene to prevent the crowd from rioting. From late at night to early the next morning, Chongqing officials released news that Lianfang Street and another street would be unsealed at 6 a.m. on Oct. 28.
In videos circulating on social media, people wearing masks can be seen standing together on a hot summer night, protesting peacefully and without extreme behaviour. Special police stood in front of them, their steel helmets shining in the streetlights.
On this night, the crowds on the streets of Chongqing who bravely protested and won a slim victory seemed to give hope that there is a possibility for the long-suffering people to stand up to the dictatorship. But in China today, this may well be a figment of the imagination. In China, the military is completely controlled by the Party, and every soldier is loyal to the Party leadership. And the police, the violent machine that “maintains the stability of the country,” is always on standby.
The unarmed population has no freedom of association, gathering, publication or speech. While the spread of smartphones has allowed them to connect with each other, there is ubiquitous censorship on WeChat, China’s largest social media outlet. In recent years, the crackdown on intellectuals and the media has carried over to the general public who post a few whiny complaints, which has silenced more and more people. People who live in fear find it hard to overcome their fear to take to the streets and express their inner anger.
In Shanghai, during the city closure, there was a scene similar to the one in Chongqing, where residents of a neighbourhood, gathered to protest and force the streets to be unsealed a little earlier. But such a phenomenon is also very rare in Shanghai, the most sophisticated and flourishing city in China.
Shanghai citizens showed their wisdom during the city closure. They expressed their anger at the lack of food and the lack of freedom through balcony concerts (people banging pots and pans on their balconies on the same evening.) Expressing their hearts. There were also several local Shanghai experts and scholars who popularized common sense, gently expressed criticism and reasoned with the authorities through the Internet. All of these videos have been reposted and widely circulated.
But real protest is hard to achieve. Tight surveillance is the reason. In addition, China’s civil society is extremely weak, and people cannot really organize themselves. More people want to “hitch a ride” [be a “free rider” to those who take risks by organizing protests]. In addition, in any society, young people are usually the main group of resistance. In China, however, young people have been propagandized and compelled by nationalist sentiments for years, creating many “pinkos” who are proud of their patriotism (actually, their “love of the Party”). It is difficult for them to develop their independent thinking and critical spirit. More young people, as a consumer generation, are indifferent to the political rights of individuals.
In addition, under the Communist Party’s powerful ideological propaganda and tight “learning” network, most people are not capable of independent thinking. Many people still believe that the COVID epidemic in North American countries, like the United States and Canada, as well as in Europe and Japan, is still horrific and has taken many lives, while the Chinese government alone truly cares about the safety of the people, and its Zero-COVID policy has protected the most people. Although it poses a great inconvenience, “it is for the sake of the country and the collective good.” Participating in collective nucleic acid testing and obeying the government’s management is an honourable act in the interest of the nation.
On August 30, 2022, after the announcement of the date of the 20th National Congress, a debate took place in a WeChat group of intellectuals. Some believed that after the 20th Congress, China’s future would change and Xi would lose his absolute authority. Others pessimistically argue that nothing will change at all. Xi will rise to power as he intends and take even harsher measures. The future of China, with its crashing economy, surging unemployment and social chaos, is a country where everything is sliding in the worst possible direction. In the discussion, WeChat netizens could not use the name of the top leader and had to use a pronoun.
Another observer, however, argued that there is no need to be pessimistic, that Xi may not get what he wants and that there is still hope for change. “After all, no one in the former Soviet Union could have imagined, even before its collapse, that such a huge Red Empire would disintegrate overnight,” he said.
Coincidentally, shortly after the critic said this, on August 30, Mikhail Gorbachev, the general secretary of the Communist Party of the former Soviet Union and the man who single-handedly “buried” the Soviet empire, passed away.
1 Nucleic acid-based testing is also called molecular testing and is often referred to as PCR.
2 The “Two Sessions,” known as Lianghui in Chinese, is the name given to the back-to-back annual meetings of two of China’s major political bodies — the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) and the National People’s Congress (NPC).
3 The Thought Police refers to China’s secret police or state security personnel. In the dystopian novel “Nineteen Eighty-Four” by George Orwell, the Thought Police (Thinkpol) are the secret police of the superstate of Oceania, who discover and punish thoughtcrime, personal and political thoughts unapproved by Ingsoc’s regime.
4 China uses health codes, with a colour-coded system of red, yellow and green signifying different levels of Covid risk. Health-tracking apps are now required for entry almost everywhere, including offices, transport stations, stores , malls and taxis. Without it, normal life grinds to a halt. Everyone has a QR code that signifies either Green code: travel freely. Red or yellow: report immediately.
5 Yuan Shikai (袁世凱: 1859 – 1916) was a Chinese military and government official who rose to power during the late Qing dynasty. He established the first modern army and a more efficient provincial government in North China during the last years of the Qing dynasty before forcing the abdication of the Xuantong Emperor, the last monarch of the Qing dynasty in 1912. Through negotiation, he became the first President of the Republic of China in that year. In 1915 he attempted to restore the hereditary monarchy in China, with himself as the Hongxian Emperor. He was forced to abolish the hereditary monarchy because of strong opposition from everywhere in the country and died shortly after, in 1916.
巨大的荒谬 ： 坚持“清零”，一场全面社会管控的提前演练？
8月30日，北京时间的傍晚时分，我的微信朋友圈里，很多人开始转发“二十大”(20th Communist Party congress)将在2022年10月16日举办的消息。“靴子终于落地了。”有人说。此前有很多传言，说中共的“二十大”将延迟召开，而这个消息证明，传说中因中共内部政治斗争而导致的“延迟”并没有出现。2017年的“十九大”，习近平修改宪法表明将无限期连任，就是在当年的10月18日召开的。
2 荒诞的“核酸” 以及“二十大”的压力
5 高度管控之下 民众是否有反抗的可能？