Spurred by news of the fire, demonstrators across the country — and in Chinese communities around the world — took to the streets, calling for an end to the restrictions, which they argue have placed an extraordinary burden on citizens. Many protesters are also demanding the resignation of China’s President Xi Jinping, who was confirmed in October for an unprecedented third term.
KQED Forum host Alexis Madrigal on Thursday spoke to three China observers about the protests, the government's response and what impact the unrest might have in amending China’s COVID policy and its future. Guests included:
Kerry Allen, a BBC Chinese media analyst
Victor Shih, chair of China and pacific relations at UC San Diego
Nancy Qian, economics professor at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management and founder of the school's China Econ Lab
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
ALEXIS MADRIGAL: How has the zero-COVID policy been implemented exactly and how has it affected life in China?
KERRY ALLEN: You get tested roughly every two to three days, and this test is entered into your phone and you get a QR code. It's either green, yellow or red, and you need to show a green code in order to be able to access most public buildings, most public transport. If you get a yellow or a red, it can literally stop you from entering buildings, stop you from getting on public transport. If you test positive for COVID-19, everybody on your entire street or in your apartment complex will be locked down. That hasn't changed for the last three years, and this is what's really fueled people's anger, the idea that they can't get back to life as normal, that if they just go to the supermarket and somebody in the same supermarket tests positive, they might not go home. They might be taken to a quarantine center.
VICTOR SHIH: And it has been mandatory. China has had the state capacity to do so because of residential committees — quasi-government workers who enforce lockdowns in every single neighborhood and prevent outsiders, even delivery people. People have been unable to get food and medicine, which has been the source of a lot of tragedies.
What are the quarantine centers like?
VICTOR SHIH: For foreigners, the so-called centralized quarantine facilities are basically like a three-star hotel. But for people in China who receive a red code, they go to a giant kind of warehouse that is not meant for people to live in and where sometimes hundreds of cots are just put on the ground and they're sleeping next to each other. Oftentimes they would only have one or two bathrooms shared by hundreds of people. The plumbing overflows, etcetera.
How has this affected the basic functioning of the economy? What's it like to own a business in this kind of environment?
NANCY QIAN: It's been incredibly difficult for economic functions to continue as normal during lockdowns. Factories can't get their product to stores, stores can't get their products to customers. It's just a complete breakdown of the supply chain. Based on data from much milder lockdowns, economists estimate that a month-long lockdown of a city like Beijing or Shanghai would reduce total Chinese GDP by 4%. And Shanghai was in lockdown for two months. As far as we know, 45 cities were in lockdown in April. In September, there were 70 cities that were on some type of a lockdown. And these are just the official ones.
What's the explanation for why China's GDP continued to increase throughout 2020 and 2021, while the U.S. GDP declined? That difference would seem strange since China had this lockdown policy.
NANCY QIAN: Part of that is because during the earlier days of COVID, infection rates were very low in China. There was a complete lockdown, not just in China, but also most other parts of the world. So there just wasn't much disease in China. Because of that, and because of their ability to do rapid lockdowns when there were low infection breakouts, they were able to keep producing, keep manufacturing, and Chinese exports actually increased during this time. During COVID, there was a lot of consumer demand from overseas for manufactured goods and that explains a lot of the Chinese growth during those years.
What do we know about the protests? What's exceptional about them?
VICTOR SHIH: The scale in terms of the number of people participating is not especially large, but in terms of the geographical spread and also the demands that were voiced by the protesters, really it is something that we have not seen since 1989. These are protests taking place over a dozen cities, and while they mostly call for less COVID restrictions, there are quite a few instances of protesters asking for fundamental political reform. Even at an elite institution like Shanghai University, which has produced half the top leaders of China — including Xi Jinping himself — there were calls for rule of law and freedom. That's really striking and is something that we have not seen for several decades.
KERRY ALLEN: You've also got workers protesting in places like Urumqi and you've got Han Chinese protesting in other parts of the country. It shows that it's not just about COVID anymore. It's about the inability to speak out about what's happening in your area. So, yes, I expect that we could see more protests and there's definitely tension and there's definitely anger about not just COVID-19, but also not being able to speak openly over the last three years.
So, yeah, it will be a case of what happens next, especially with the winter months coming. It's going to get a lot colder. There have been warnings that there will be more COVID-19 cases. So there are expected to be a lot of lockdowns. And there's a lot of emphasis on local governments to try and manage the economy as well as the virus spreading. But people online are still very much talking about their anger and their frustrations. The censors might try to silence this, but the anger is still there.
And what has the government response been?
KERRY ALLEN: They haven't acknowledged the protesters whatsoever in state media. There's just no mention of them. What there's been in newspapers and broadcasters is this emphasis that China is constantly changing its guidelines in line with scientific and technical guidelines for what works best with COVID-19. So they're really doubling down and saying, "Our policies are the correct ones." And yeah, censors will remove mention of protest pictures, of protest videos, of protests online. So there's the idea that dissent just doesn't exist in the country. So it's a major operation involving thousands of people to literally scrub social media posts and make sure that people don't see these.
It seems like this zero-COVID approach is causing the Chinese Communist Party and Xi Jinping a lot of trouble. So why not do something else?
VICTOR SHIH: You have to remember that China spent pretty much the past three years trumpeting the successful approach in controlling COVID up until recent months. After the initial wave of very tragic infections and deaths in Wuhan, the Chinese government was able to control the spread of COVID at a time when, in most countries in the world, COVID spread pretty much uncontrollably, leading to millions of deaths.