China’s harsh ‘zero COVID’ policy inflicts human suffering, economic damage
China’s harsh ‘zero COVID’ policy inflicts human suffering, economic damage

China’s harsh ‘zero COVID’ policy inflicts human suffering, economic damage

The stories of Shanghai, a city of 25 million entering its fourth week of COVID-19 lockdown, have been shocking.

Millions have been confined to their homes, their movements monitored by pandemic police in white hazmat suits. Nearly 300,000 people who have tested positive or had contact with a positive person have been forcibly relocated to Spartan quarantine centers.

Social media videos have shown people fighting over food or screaming for help from their apartment windows: “Save us! We do not have enough to eat!”

Police took children who tested positive and sequestered them, away from their parents, in state-run hospitals – a policy that was only reversed after an outcry from desperate mothers.

For over two years, China’s response to the pandemic has been the draconian approach known as “zero COVID.” It managed to stop the spread of the virus in 2020, when there were no vaccines and the exposure was more often fatal.

But now most infections originate from the relatively mild omicron variant, and an enviable 88% of people in China are fully vaccinated. Shanghai has reported more than 220,000 COVID-19 cases since March 1, but has officially acknowledged no deaths as a result of the increase.

Still, the government’s response has been total lockdown.

The result has been the unnecessary disruption of millions of lives and a blow to the world’s second largest economy, with effects that will wave across the world.

The damage is impossible to estimate with any accuracy, but large enough that Prime Minister Li Keqiang publicly warned last week that the economy is facing “unexpected challenges and rising downward pressure.”

In Greater Shanghai, China’s economic capital, workers cannot reach their jobs. Construction projects have stopped. Conveyors for Tesla, Volkswagen, Apple and other major brands have suspended operations.

Supply chains are in chaos. Truck and train traffic has plummeted. And according to unofficial reports, hundreds of container ships are stuck, unloaded in the region’s ports.

The problems are not limited to Shanghai. Japan’s Nomura Bank reported last week that 45 Chinese cities, with nearly 400 million inhabitants in total, were in some sort of lockdown.

The government of Beijing has not changed its official target of 5.5% growth for 2022, but economists say that figure looks unattainable now.

Until recently, many Americans thought of China as a power that would soon overtake the United States to become the largest economy in the world – a meaningless landmark, but one that comes with bragging rights.

Two years ago, the Japan Center for Economic Research predicted that the transition point would come in 2029. Last month, the think tank revised its projection to 2033, four years later.

In light of all the negative data, you can expect China’s leaders to soften the zero COVID policy for economic growth. That is what has happened, at least tacitly, in the United States, where the Biden administration has relaxed its COVID-19 recommendations in light of the diminished threat of death.

Not in China.

“Prevention and control work can not be relaxed,” President Xi Jinping said last week. “Perseverance is victory.”

Meanwhile, said Aaron L. Friedberg, a China researcher at Princeton University and author of “Getting China Wrong,” Xi uses a well-established apparatus to strengthen domestic support for his regime, even in the face of an economic downturn: unbridled nationalism .

“The regime has deliberately increased the sense of antagonism between China and the West,” Friedberg said. “And it’s actually been pretty successful with that.”

When China accuses the United States of being to blame for Russia’s decision to invade Ukraine, he said the Americans and the Biden administration are not its main audience.

“I do not think it is directed at us,” he said. “It is aimed at the domestic public and at developing countries – shows that China is emerging as the leader of the global south, willing to stand up to the West.”

Russia’s war in Ukraine ends one day. When that happens, China – with its economic challenges and ambitions for international leadership – will resume its status as the most important global rival to the United States.


Doyle McManus is a syndicated columnist. This column was provided by the Tribune News Service.

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