At about noon last Tuesday, Yu Wenming, an 82-year-old man in Shanghai, called his local residential committee for help. “I’ve used up my medicines. Nor do I have anything to eat. I’m feeling awful,” Yu, who had tested positive for Covid, told the party secretary, Zhang Zhen.
Zhang listened patiently, saying he had already referred the case to his superiors and there was nothing he could do. “Do you mean I should just wait here until I die, then?” Yu asked. Zhang responded with an angry rant, complaining that he too was completely powerless in this situation: “I’m worried too. I’m angry too … But there’s nothing we can do … I don’t know what to do either.”
Zhang revealed that calls for help had been piling up in recent days, but that his superiors were not dealing with them. “Perhaps one day, when I cannot put up with it, I’ll quit. Will this day come soon?”
In economic terms, the equivalent of 40% of China’s gross domestic product is estimated to be under some form of lockdown. In Shanghai – a metropolis known for its hustle and bustle and sometimes called the “Paris of the east” – a fortnight of confinement has produced a sense of hopelessness and desperation among its 25 million residents.
Food shortages have forced some residents to resort to bartering. A barrage of criticism of the authorities’ response to the crisis has left the normally efficient internet censors unable to keep up.
Online, many residents are not only questioning the way the outbreak is being dealt with, but also Beijing’s official narrative, which emphasises the collective good. Footage of localised protests have been uploaded to Chinese social media. They have been taken down by the censors, but have reappeared on western platforms such as Twitter and Facebook – both of which are blocked in China.
“Every day there are incidents that break one’s bottom line,” wrote a “normal Shanghai resident” last week in a widely circulated Weibo article entitled, Shanghai’s Patience Has Reached the Limit.
Yet, despite growing discontent, there is little sign the authorities are going to change course. Distressing tales of exhausted officials have been widely read online in recent days, including one about a 55-year-old local public health officer, Qian Wenxiong, who was said to have taken his own life in his office because of the pressure he was under. The authorities confirmed he had died on Thursday, and the police did not deny the rumoured cause of it.
A volunteer addressing residents of an apartment block in Shanghai last week. Photograph: Chen Jianli/AP
Hu Xijin, the former editor of the state-run tabloid Global Times, said in a commentary that Qian’s death had intensified the impression that the fight against Covid in Shanghai was “overwhelming” officials. But he insisted that despite the tragedy, Shanghai “must achieve Covid clearance” for the benefit of the country.
His words have been echoed in recent days by China’s most senior leaders. On Wednesday, President Xi Jinping told his officials: “It is necessary to overcome paralysing thoughts, war-weariness … and slack mentality.” On Friday, vice-premier Sun Chunlan reiterated the government’s unwavering commitment to “zero Covid”.
But the tensions between the authorities’ hard line and grassroots protests against food shortages have exposed a dilemma for Beijing, according to Prof Jane Duckett, a longtime follower of Shanghai politics and society at the University of Glasgow.
“The food supply crisis in Shanghai has been a key issue that has surprised Shanghai’s residents and led them to question the anti-Covid strategy,” she said. “The problem is that without better logistics in supplies of food and other essentials, there is pressure to relax restrictions, but a relaxation will likely lead to the virus spreading – and scenes such as those in Hong Kong. Protest and instability seem unavoidable either way.”
Experts say that despite the growing calls outside the country for China to ditch its Covid policy, Beijing’s patchy record in vaccinating its vulnerable population – in particular those over 60 years old – would pose an even greater danger to its inadequate healthcare system.
By 5 April, more than 92 million Chinese citizens aged 65 or above had still not received three vaccine doses, leaving them at greater risk of contracting severe symptoms or dying from the virus. More worryingly, 20.2 million people aged 80 and above have not been fully vaccinated either.
Supplies being delivered at a compound in the city. Photograph: Héctor Retamal/AFP/Getty Images
These realities, coupled with the use of a comparatively less effective homemade vaccine, has made China’s future policy choices even more limited.
“The Chinese leadership has been cornered,” said Yanzhong Huang, a senior fellow at the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations thinktank. “But instead of asking all population – young and old – to stay at home at the same time, Beijing should focus on persuading its senior citizens to receive three doses of vaccine and making the antiviral pills available to them first. They should also approve the BioNTech mRNA vaccine for nationwide rollout immediately.”
But to China’s leadership, the insistence on zero Covid is also about demonstrating the superiority of China’s political system, Duckett believes.
Last week, Xi again extolled the policy in an event that celebrated the Winter Olympics, despite reports of food shortages in one of the country’s most important financial hubs. “As some foreign athletes have said, if there was a gold medal for responding to the pandemic, then China deserves it,” Xi said, according to the Xinhua news agency.
What has happened in Shanghai and elsewhere in the country will also have political consequences in the run-up to the Communist party’s 20th national congress later this year, according to Victor Shih, an expert on Chinese elite politics at the University of California, San Diego.
“The party typically would like a smooth economic and political environment going into the congress, but Covid and the different ways Chinese cities are responding to it will create a very challenging environment for the party,” he said.
For residents of Shanghai, who have the reputation of being uninterested in politics, the pressing issue now is to get through this period. Towards the end of his call on Tuesday, Yu posed a question to Zhang, the local party secretary: “Is this what it’s really like in our country?”
“I don’t know how Shanghai ended up like this,” said Zhang. He sighed and ended the call. “I’m sorry, Mr Yu … Goodbye.”
A recording of their exchange soon went viral on WeChat, before the censors caught up with it and removed it. On Thursday, state media said that Yu had been sent to a hospital.