There is a palpable sense of relief in China now that the days of zero COVID are over.
A woman holds a rabbit-shaped cotton candy as she and her family members visit a temple fair at the Yuanmingyuan Garden during the second day of the Lunar New Year celebrations in Beijing, Monday, Jan. 23, 2023.
It’s quiet these days in Shanghai – but then, that’s common for any Chinese city in the first few days of the Lunar New Year.
We deserve the reassuring continuity of New Year calm – so much of what happened in 2022 was exceptional in the extreme.
The story of Shanghai last year reads like a dystopian novel, one written by an author with a powerful imagination. A year ago, who could possibly have guessed that the nearly 30 million residents of one of the largest and most cosmopolitan cities on the planet would be confined to quarters for nearly two months during spring? Millions scrambling (digitally of course) to secure enough food to eat, the streets looking like we’d been hit by a neutron bomb – no damage to structures, but devoid of most people.
And the lockdown wasn’t the end. Until December, we had to have our throats swabbed every few days, because otherwise we’d become pariahs – unable to access public venues and transit, most commercial establishments, schools, etc. Rolling lockdowns would engulf scores of Chinese cities through the summer and autumn.
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Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping gained a third term at the 20th Party Congress in mid-October – not much of a surprise there. But “Shanghai 2022, the Novel” boasts an especially astonishing final chapter – “astonishing” being the adjective people here most often use to describe the last several weeks of the year.
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From late November, hundreds of thousands of China’s citizenry took their complaints onto the streets, prominently in Shanghai, clamoring for an end to “dynamic zero” COVID-19 policies, and even more.
And then, instead of jackboots on streetcorners and a switched-off internet, instead of mass public arrests, we witnessed one of the most dramatic policy reversals of any government in recent times, anywhere in the world: the complete abandonment of the theretofore sacrosanct dynamic zero.
But with the end of mass PCR testing and restrictions on movement came the inevitable continental-sized outbreak of COVID-19 cases. By Christmas, the streets of Shanghai had become quiet again, approaching April’s ghost-town feel – not because of government restrictions, but rather, out of caution. People either had COVID-19 or wanted to avoid it.
By the first week of 2023, though, the draconian COVID policy had been deposited in the dustbin of history, Shanghai’s COVID-19 infection peak had seemed to pass, and we had unseasonably warm weather. Residents thronged parks and promenades and al fresco coffee venues, visibly and even raucously expressing their relief and optimism.
The collective sense of relief – that, finally, we were getting back to normal – didn’t get much notice in the reportage and the opining of the chattering classes overseas. A century ago, observers as diverse as Bertrand Russell and Carl Crow noted, wryly, that foreign commentators often get China wrong, and these past few weeks have given us another set of datapoints proving this long-established truism.
Pictures of hospital lobbies crowded with patients on cots and IV drips have gone viral – posted and reposted as evidence of COVID-19 infections overwhelming the healthcare system. Anyone who has been in China awhile knows that local hospital lobbies often look like that. No one doubts the serious strain on the system, or the under-reporting of cases, the latter in part for sheer lack of data. Surely some hundreds of thousands will die – China loses roughly 100,000 people to flu alone in an average year. But a million dying unattended? Crematoria being overwhelmed? These memes go viral primarily for their ability to capture attention, the hard currency of the social media era, rather than for any ability to illuminate.
Tens of millions of urban Chinese are now making New Year pilgrimages to their ancestral family homes for the first time since the advent of the pandemic. Another popular scary story has them carrying unwanted Omicron presents out into the hinterlands, which have weaker healthcare infrastructure and supposedly unexposed populations. But provincial China is hardly isolated from the country’s urbanized east coast. Omicron travels fast, and legion provincial folk have already been vaccinated. The scary story fails to pass a ready-to-hand reality check: Ask people currently in the provincial areas, or with family/friends there, and they often report what should be intuitive. Omicron is already out there – has been for some weeks now – and people aren’t dying in the streets.
The Onion (bless them) trolled the media in 2014 with the satirical headline, “CNN Holds Morning Meeting To Decide What Viewers Should Panic About For Rest Of Day.” To understand a broad swathe of Anglophone media coverage of China, just insert “China Story” before “Viewers.”
There’s no doubt that 2023 will be a rough year – the effects of zero COVID destroyed hundreds of thousands of small and medium enterprises, though earlier policy iterations, in 2020 and 2021, saved perhaps an equal number of lives. A stroll down any commercial street in Shanghai reveals shuttered establishments here and there. The threats of real estate bubbles, local government shortfalls and aggregate debt rightfully concern all, and precede the pandemic.
Local netizens flooded social media last week with the chart showing China’s first population decline in six decades, though they have long known about the phenomenon. The cost (in both time and money) to raise a child in urban China has been daunting for most of this millennium. Hence most couples one meets locally have one child – or none – and aren’t eager to have more.
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The world as well as the Chinese widely discuss these three issues: the economic damage of zero COVID, the looming macroeconomic impact of debt and property prices and such, and China’s demographic challenge. But on the (currently subdued) streets here, one still hears the quiet sigh of relief. Local people know well a few things that seem to escape the overseas commentariat. Several enormously important metrics – increases in wealth per capita, life expectancy and urbanization, and number of people escaping abject poverty – are first-time-in-history phenomena and have been underway for decades.
The transformation has given China the world’s largest (by far) consumer class, interacting with the world’s most advanced consumer-facing tech environment. Chinese enterprises lead in virtually every aspect of the consumer-digital interface: e-commerce, smartphone penetration, 5G, digital mobility and the like. And the cities themselves are among the “smartest” in the world.
In a growing array of categories, Chinese enterprises have long since stopped being imitators and have become global innovators – AI, next-generation manufacturing, automated supply chain – the list goes on.
China faces an existential imperative to approach carbon neutrality, but also an epoch-making opportunity to become the vanguard of the new energy age. Consequently, the government is investing eye-watering sums to support the transition. Chinese enterprises now dominate in EV and battery tech, but also more broadly lead in renewable power generation.
In addition to being quiet this week in Shanghai, it’s cold – back to normal, below freezing at night. The Chinese have another name for their New Year: “Spring Festival,” which rings quite optimistic for a holiday in late January or early February. Yet in these first days of the Year of the Rabbit, we feel that optimism in the chilly air. We experienced some astonishing developments in 2022, but in terms of substantial, long-term effect, the truly astonishing developments had their origins years, even decades ago, and will play out over a similarly longer term.