China zero-Covid: As anger mounts and tragedies mount, Beijing shows no signs of budging

China zero-Covid: As anger mounts and tragedies mount, Beijing shows no signs of budging
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A version of this story appeared in an update in CNN’s three-weekly China bulletin, which examines what you need to know about the country’s rise and how it’s affecting the world. Register here.


Zhou, a car salesman in the northeast demonhe last saw his father alive in a video chat on the afternoon of November 1, hours after their home on the far outskirts of Beijing was sealed off.

At the time, they didn’t even realize the Covid restrictions had been imposed suddenly – no advance warning was given, and there was no incident at the apartment building where Zhou’s parents and 10-year-old son lived, he said.

The family found out the hard way when Zhou’s father was denied emergency medical care after he suddenly had trouble breathing during a video call. He claimed that Zhou and his son made dozens of emergency calls, while security guards prevented relatives from entering the building to take the 58-year-old grandfather to the hospital.

An hour later, an ambulance finally arrived to take Zhou’s father to a hospital just five minutes away. But it was too late to save him.

“The local government killed my father,” Zhou told CNN through tears at his home in Beijing. He said he received no explanation as to why the ambulance was taking so long, only a death certificate that showed the date of death was incorrect.

Zhou’s anger is part of a growing tide of resentment against China relentless zero Covid lockdownsofficials insist that it is necessary to protect people’s lives from a virus that according to the official count, it has killed only six people out of tens of thousands of symptomatic cases reported in the past six months.

But increasingly, the restrictions — not the virus — are being blamed for the heartbreaking deaths that have sparked nationwide outrage on social media.

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On the same day, Zhou lost his father, a 3-year-old boy who died of gas poisoning in a closed compound in the northwestern city of Lanzhou after he was prevented from being rushed to a hospital. Two weeks later, a 4-month-old girl died in hotel quarantine in the central city of Zhengzhou after a 12-hour delay in receiving medical attention.

Many more families like Zhou’s have likely suffered similar tragedies that didn’t get the attention of social media.

Zhou said he contacted several state media outlets in Beijing to report his story, but no reporters showed up. Amid growing desperation and anger, I turned to the foreign media despite knowing the risk of government backlash. CNN is using only his last name to mitigate this risk.

“I just want to get justice for my father. Why did you close us? Why did you take my father’s life?” I said

Workers erect metal barriers outside a quarantined community in Beijing on November 24.

With zero Covid in China, anger and frustration have reached new heights, prompting rare scenes of protest as local authorities rush to reimpose restrictions. record infections – despite the government’s recent announcement of a limited relaxation of some regulations.

Some residents in the southern city of Guangzhou last week rebelled against the extended quarantine regime breaking down barriers and marching through the streets.

Workers at the world’s largest iPhone assembly factory in the central city of Zhengzhou this week clashed with security personnel in hazmat suits due to delay in bonus payment and chaotic Covid rules.

A resident of the southwestern city of Chongqing on Thursday gave a restrained speech criticizes the Covid lockdown in the apartment complex. “If there was no freedom, I would rather die!” he shouted to the crowd, who called him a “hero” and pushed him away from several police officers who tried to take him away.

The acts of defiance have sparked outrage online, particularly as Chinese football fans – many under some form of lockdown or restrictions – can only watch from home as tens of thousands of rowdy fans gather at the stadium. The world championship held in Qatar.

“None of the fans are seen wearing face masks or asked to provide proof of their Covid test results. Don’t they live on the same planet as us?” Asked a Wechat article questioning China’s insistence on zero Covid that went viral before censorship.

There are signs that Chinese officials are feeling the heat of growing public discontent over the heavy social and economic damage inflicted by the expanding lockdowns.

Earlier this month, the Chinese government released 20-point guidelines to limit violations of zero-Covid regulations in daily life and the economy. He shortened the quarantine for close contacts of infected people and travelers arriving in the country from 10 days to eight days. It also lifted quarantine requirements for secondary contacts, discouraged unnecessary mass testing drives and lifted a major restriction on international flights.

The announcement raised hopes of a turnaround toward reopening and triggering Chinese stocks rally. But a surge in infections is quickly dampening such hopes as China enters its fourth winter of the pandemic. The country recorded a record 32,695 local cases on Friday as infections surpassed the previous peak in April during Shanghai’s months-long lockdown for the second straight day.

Hazmat-suited Covid workers help delivery drivers drop off goods for besieged residents in Beijing on November 24.

Instead of relaxing controls, many local officials are returning to the zero-tolerance playbook, trying to stamp out infections as soon as they flare up.

Some cities that lowered their mass testing requirements after the announcement are already tightening other Covid restrictions.

Shijiazhuang was one of the first cities to cancel mass testing. It also allowed students to return to schools after extended periods of online classes. But as cases increased over the weekend, authorities reimposed a lockdown on Monday, telling residents to stay indoors.

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The video reflects the harsh reality of China’s zero Covid strategy

On Tuesday, financial hub Shanghai banned anyone arriving in the city from entering shopping malls, restaurants, supermarkets and gyms for five days. Authorities also closed cultural and entertainment venues in half of the city.

In Guangzhou, officials this week extended the lockdown in the protest-held Haizhu district for a fifth time and closed the most populous Baiyun district.

Zhengzhou, home to a Foxconn factory where workers have clashed with police, imposed a five-day quarantine in key urban areas.

People ride bicycles on an empty street near Beijing's central business district on November 24.

In Beijing’s largest district, Chaoyang, streets are largely empty as authorities urge residents to stay indoors and order businesses to close. This week, schools in several districts also switched to online classes.

Low vaccination rates among China’s elderly have fueled fears that easing restrictions could overwhelm the country’s health system. As of Nov. 11, about two-thirds of people age 80 and older had received two doses, and only 40% had received a booster shot.

Yanzhong Huang, senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations, said the re-tightening of Covid controls reflects a typical public policy dilemma in China: “If you relax the policy, there will be chaos; but if you tighten it, it will suffocate.”

Huang said he does not expect any major changes to the zero-Covid policy anytime soon. “Because the incentive structure of local self-government bodies has not been changed. They are still responsible for the Covid situation in their jurisdiction,” he said.

For their part, Chinese officials have repeatedly denied that the 20 measures listed in the government’s guidelines are meant to contain the virus.

Disease control official Shen Hongbing said at a press conference last week that the measures are related to the “optimization” of existing Covid prevention and control policies. “They’re not easing (control), not reopening or ‘laying flat,'” he said.

On the outskirts of Beijing, Zhou said that while the zero-Covid policy was “beneficial to the majority”, its implementation at the local level was too strict.

“I do not want such situations to be repeated in China and anywhere in the world. “I lost my father. My son lost his beloved grandfather. Now I’m angry.”

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