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2022 Winter Olympics less than a month away, China’s zero-Covid policy is being tested

A journalist's diary documenting her lockdown experiences in Xi'an city was swiftly censored by China after people began comparing it to a diary on Wuhan lockdown.

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As Xi’an city in Shaanxi enters the third week of lockdown, many in the province never thought they could face another Wuhan-like confinement. Local authorities claim they have brought Covid-19 under control. But the last three weeks in Xi’an were very tense as people took to social media to criticise the authorities’ response.

The central government in Beijing isn’t leaving any stone unturned this time. The criticism over the Wuhan lockdown followed a massive crackdown on public discourse. But China’s zero Covid cases policy is putting a massive pressure on the state bureaucracy.

Xi’an – a city of 13 million people – was put under lockdown on 23 December after a cluster of Covid cases were discovered. Wuhan, by comparison, has a population of 11 million and was placed under lockdown last year. Xi’an isn’t the only city under lockdown. Over 1 million residents of Yuzhou city and over 5 million residents in Anyang, both in Henan province, are now under lockdown. Approximately 20 million people are currently under lockdown across Shaanxi and Henan provinces.

Things were going fine in Xi’an until December. In September, Xi’an held the national games where Xi Jinping himself presided. Xi’an is an important tourist hub as the city hosts the legendary terracotta warriors.

Visuals of people lined up to get tested across Xi’an have trended on Chinese social media since the lockdown began in December. The state media machinery tried sending the message that the pandemic was under control through images. A video of health workers seen using a flamethrower to clean a building facility circulated on Twitter.

Local officials’ lapses were blamed for the shortage in food supplies. Two local officials, Wang Bin, a Communist Party secretary of the district committee, and his deputy Cui Shiyue, were removed.

Also read: What China wants you to know—Covid in Xi’an under control. What it doesn’t—there’s no food

Documentation censored

A local journalist named Jiang Xue wrote a diary titled “Ten days in Xi’an” that captured her experience under the lockdown. The diary was swiftly censored on WeChat after people began sharing it and compared Jiang’s writing to Fang Fang’s diary about the Wuhan lockdown. Jiang has previously worked for Caixin and other prominent state media outlets.

“I wanted to tell him: ‘In this world, no man is an island—the death of any individual is the death of us all. The virus hasn’t claimed any lives yet here in Xi’an, but lives have been lost due to other causes, that much seems probable,” one of the available paragraphs from Jiang’s diary read.

The Chinese state media shared the stories of expats under lockdown in Xi’an. Xinhua News Agency interviewed Dev Raturi, a prominent Indian restaurateur and actor based in China for 17 years. Raturi owns five restaurants in Xi’an and regularly speaks to state media.

The hashtag “Xi’an epidemic” was viewed 98 million times on Weibo. The hashtag “It is difficult to buy groceries in Xi’an” was viewed over 300 million times.

People in Xi’an also shared lighter moments while they were locked at home. A Xi’an resident named Zhang Kai and his two roommates drank 400 bottles of beer in 20 days of lockdown. A hashtag on the incident trended on Weibo and was shared by People’s Daily with the video of 400 bottles lined up at Zhang Kai’s house, saying, “reminder: excessive drinking is harmful to health!”

Also read: A new white paper insists China is a democracy. It wants you to forget Tiananmen

Critical two weeks ahead

The situation is far from under control as new confirmed cases of Covid were found in Tianjin. The port city’s proximity to Beijing, where the 2022 Winter Olympics will be held, has set off alarm bells.

On Tuesday, the search trend “97 positive cases in Tianjin confirmed” was the second most viewed on Baidu, around 5 million times. Another search trend, “Tianjin in Henan is facing Omicron”, was viewed over 4.5 million times on Baidu and was the sixth top trend. Tianjin has now reported the first locally transmitted case of Omicron.

On Tuesday, Tianjin was moved to the high-risk category as mass testing across the city was underway. The hashtag “Tianjin is adjusted to high risk” was viewed over 20 million times on Weibo. Beijing news has confirmed 97 positive cases in Tianjin, 49 out of which were locally transmitted.

China’s Covid response has irked the neighbours. Vietnam has complained about China’s pandemic control mechanism being an “overkill.”

“Pandemic prevention measures that Guangxi is applying under the ‘zero Covid’ policy, such as stopping border gate operations or stopping the import of some types of fruit, are overkill,” the Vietnam trade ministry said in a video call.

The Vietnamese ministry complained about the disruption to supply chains because of pandemic control, which has hurt Vietnamese businesses.

With the Winter Olympics less than a month away, China’s zero-Covid policy will be tested with the arrival of athletes from around the world. Millions are also likely to travel across China in the next two weeks leading up to the Chinese New Year on 1 February.

The following two weeks will be critical for pandemic control and the success of the Winter Olympics in Beijing.

The author is a columnist and a freelance journalist, currently pursuing an MSc in international politics with focus on China from School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. He was previously a China media journalist at the BBC World Service. He tweets @aadilbrar. Views are personal.

(Edited by Prashant)

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