China's Workers Fight Back Against State's Strict COVID Rules

Public frustration at harsh COVID-19 rules boiled over in a megacity in southern China this week as residents clashed with police in rare scenes of violent defiance.

China is the only major economy in the world still trying to stamp out outbreaks. The approach, known as "dynamic zero COVID," has kept deaths from the virus at a minimum, but it has also throttled the economy, leading to a decline in exports and a rise in youth unemployment.

On Monday night, footage circulated on social media showed angry residents in Guangzhou charging barricades and kicking down fences after a weekslong lockdown, termed "static management," was extended due to surging case numbers.

Health workers tasked with isolating entire neighborhoods found themselves overwhelmed by a large crowd of mostly young men, who appeared to overturn at least one police vehicle during the riot, which reportedly took place in Haizhu district, home to roughly 1.8 million.

The police arrived to disperse the crowd a few hours later, eyewitnesses said. Additional videos, which Newsweek couldn't independently verify, allegedly showed police vehicles patrolling an empty boulevard, urging residents to adhere to public health regulations.

In all provinces, regions and municipalities across the country, China is experiencing its largest COVID waves since the pandemic began nearly three years ago. But in the southern manufacturing hub of Guangdong, of which Guangzhou is the capital, conditions are particular bad.

The city of almost 19 million is the second-most populous in China, home to large numbers of poorer migrant laborers whose work is irregular, and whose living arrangements aren't conducive to prolonged periods of quarantine.

China's zero-COVID Frustrations Boil Over
People wait in line for a PCR test to detect COVID-19 at a public testing site on November 14, 2022, in Beijing. Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

This week's rare clashes with local authorities were triggered by a lack of income due to shuttering factories and severed transport links out of the province, as well as a shortage of food and other provisions unattainable during lockdown. Residents in "high-risk" neighborhoods were expected to undergo near-daily testing for the virus.

"The protesters are definitely at risk of prosecution," Han Yang, an Australia-based political commentator and former Chinese diplomat, told Newsweek. "Order and stability are the foremost consideration for Chinese leaders, and no protest will be tolerated for fear of it spreading out."

Tweak, Not Change

The flare-up was in some ways reminiscent of scenes from Shanghai, China's richest city, this spring, when some 25 million people were locked down for two months as the government ordered the containment of what was then the country's most serious surge.

Some residents banged pots and pans and sang from the windows of their high-rise apartments as a form of protest. As daily mass PCR testing continued across the city, others resisted centralized quarantine in shoddy facilities, but in the end most complied. Regardless of wealth, all experienced a lack of timely supplies and mental anguish from indefinite isolation.

Crucially, like in Shanghai, where deaths remained low throughout the ordeal, over 90 percent of new cases in Guangzhou are asymptomatic. Despite weeks of on-and-off lockdowns in the city, health officials are yet to report a severe or critical patient, or record a single death.

Sensing growing public discontent, particularly among the middle class, over the costs of the endless and sweeping pandemic controls, President Xi Jinping has sought to refine his signature public health policy.

He convened China's top officials last week to announce a 20-point optimization plan. Among the measures were reduced quarantine time and less targeted tracing of close contacts. Tacitly acknowledging some of the public hardships, the central government also discouraged unnecessary mass testing and catch-all neighborhood restrictions.

But the central message stayed unchanged: COVID remained a menace; Xi's policy had worked in the past and would work again, the surest sign that he had perhaps invested too much political capital into the position to perform a quick—and public—reversal.

During a visit to Guangzhou on Tuesday, Huang Kunming, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) secretary in Guangdong, urged health officials to "win the battle" against the virus, telling the local government to speed up the construction of field hospitals and centralized quarantine facilities.

"It is an example of the inherent contradiction between Beijing's zero-COVID strategy and the 20-point relaxation plan," said Han, the former diplomat. "As long as zero COVID is in place as a guiding principle, the local governments will stay on the safe side and use harsh measures to achieve it. There are no other ways to do it."

China's zero-COVID Frustrations Boil Over
A health worker walks past a residential area under lockdown due to COVID-19 restrictions on November 13, 2022, in Beijing. NOEL CELIS/AFP via Getty Images

When Shanghai, a major port city, was brought to a standstill, it decimated exports and spooked investors. The lockdown of Guangzhou could prove to be equally consequential for the global economy.

But recent history would suggest Huang was right to toe the party line, if only for political expediency. Li Qiang, who oversaw Shanghai's citywide lockdown as party secretary and bore the brunt of public anger for it, was thought to have lost his chance at promotion after the performance.

However, when Xi emerged with a norm-breaking third term as CCP general secretary at a twice-a-decade political gathering last month, Li, a Xi loyalist, appeared alongside him, having been installed as China's No. 2 leader and likely its new premier next March.

Yanzhong Huang, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations, said Li's promotion was "a clear signal that being more Catholic than the pope actually pays off."

However, the Chinese leadership faces a test of a different magnitude in Guangzhou, whose government lacks Shanghai's resources and its constituents its level of income. It means the unease in the south could be much harder to quell.

In mid-April, the surge in cases in Shanghai saw China's daily COVID infections peak at just under 30,000. By Wednesday, however, positive cases in Guangzhou accounted for most of the country's nearly 40,000 new infections, with no high point in sight just yet.

The ongoing spike in cases, coupled with the official zero-tolerance approach, could have serious implications for the sustainability of the national policy going forward, said Huang, especially as local governments turn to more indiscriminate measures as they struggle to offer flexibility.

"In those provinces or localities where local capacity is low and they're not so experienced in handling outbreaks, they're more likely to use these extreme measures," he told Newsweek.

Urumqi, capital of the northwestern Xinjiang region, was under some form of lockdown for its 100th day on Wednesday as cases rose in their double digits. Accounts of local residents dying from starvation have been reported throughout.

In Zhengzhou, capital of central Henan province, an outbreak at the world's largest iPhone assembly plant this month threatened livelihoods as well as the stability of Apple's holiday stock. As hundreds of staff fled out of fear of infection, local village cadres were asked to step in to do the work.

On Thursday, officials in Zhengzhou faced further public outcry over the death of a 4-month-old girl, who died of illness in a quarantine hotel after her father struggled to get help for 11 hours. In early November, a 3-year-old boy suffering from carbon monoxide poisoning died after his father spent an hour breaking out of their locked-down residential compound to reach a hospital.

No Easy Way Out

The obstacles slowing China's exit from zero COVID are systemic. Despite attempts to tweak the policy, officials are very seldom punished and, as Li's case shows, are in fact incentivized to stamp out outbreaks by any means possible.

In the end, Beijing's hand may be forced by bottom-up pressure, particularly as the financial burden of the strategy becomes too heavy to bear. China's vast testing infrastructure, for instance, is an undertaking that could run up an annual bill of hundreds of billions of dollars.

Across the country, Chinese citizens and foreign nationals alike are expected to maintain green health codes in WeChat, the do-everything app, in order to access public venues. The regulation necessitates regular PCR tests, but cash-strapped local governments are increasingly unable to fund them.

"In the future, when people are asked to pay out of pocket to get tested, access to these facilities will become increasingly difficult," said Huang. "A lot of these people will be very unhappy with that."

"I think that the coming weeks will be critical for the future direction of the zero COVID," he added.

China's zero-COVID Frustrations Boil Over
An health worker reaches out to give a woman a PCR test to detect COVID-19 at a public testing site on November 14, 2022, in Beijing. Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

Publicly, Beijing continues to hint at the risks of a nationwide loosening of COVID rules, which a previous study suggested could claim up to 1.5 million lives due to China's large elderly population and its under-resourced health care system.

But if the central government is planning a meaningful shift, it has made no preparations to do so, according to Huang. The virus continues to be described as deadly, despite Beijing's own statistics suggesting otherwise, and the vaccination rate among China's elderly, those aged 60 and above, has remained largely unchanged in the past three months.

"If the central government is really serious about moving away from zero COVID, you would expect them to start preparing public opinion, launching a nationwide campaign on vaccination, investing seriously in surge capacity, and introducing triage procedurals so only severe cases are treated in hospitals," Huang argued.

China is yet to approve the rollout of mRNA vaccines. Even if it did, it could take six months to a year to achieve the desired vaccinate rate.

"We really don't know how effective the Chinese vaccines are and whether they can withstand the rapid increase in cases should policy relaxation happen," Huang said. "So when we talk about the future of the Chinese zero-COVID policy, it hinges upon whether the central government is willing to stick to this zero-COVID mentality and indeed how confident they are about their vaccines."

In the CCP's flagship People's Daily newspaper on Tuesday, the central government pen name "Zhong Yin" said China's normal disease prevention and control measures remained scientific and precise, and struck the greatest balance between public health and the national economy.

There was no room for complacency amid "a great deal of uncertainty" about the trajectory of the pandemic, it said, while also recognizing "inconveniences" experienced by members of the public.

The editorial suggested public health officials needed to guard against heavy-handed and one-size-fits-all approaches to curtailing the virus. But, as is often the case, the execution of the sentiment has been left to local leaders.

"Persistence is victory," the column said, "persistence leads to victory, persistence will surely lead to victory."