Starvation will push and pull human psychology in unusual directions—it is one of the few things that can overcome fear of the authorities. When famine came to China 400 years ago, it made Chinese peasants receptive to the preachers of class war. When the government failed to provide crucial supplies, the people rose up in rebellion. They pillaged the ancestral tombs of the incumbent Ming dynasty, fought their way to Beijing, and sacked the city (which was quickly deserted by imperial forces, who were also starving). The dynasty was overthrown, its last emperor left swinging from a tree above the Forbidden City.
A government that fails to feed the people has lost all legitimacy. There may be no famine in modern China, but the Communist Party’s ill-conceived “Zero COVID” policy is raising ghosts from the nation’s long history. In the abundant 21st century, we are seeing remarkable video footage of crowds confronting police outside their compound, screaming: “We are starving!” Scores of residents shriek and roar into the Shanghai night from their apartment blocks as if experiencing the onset of mass psychosis:
The Party’s leaders have always been careful students of the dynastic past—they are, after all, an imperial dynasty in all but name. They know what widespread hunger portends for the authorities. Beneath all the glitter and wealth and relentless modernisation, China nurses deep cultural memories, and one of these is the ancient link between starvation and violent rebellion. It’s not a sure link. No uprising followed the humanitarian disaster caused by Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward 60 years ago. But it has happened enough that we can sense the creeping fear they must be feeling today in the Party headquarters at Zhongnanhai.
China had seen a number of lockdowns in recent months, but Shanghai residents were still detained in March for “spreading rumours” that their own city was next. Then the inevitable lockdown arrived. At first it was staggered, with the city to the east side of the Huangpu River closed for four days, and then the west side closed for four days. Finally, authorities shut down the whole city, with no end date announced. Lockdowns are essentially useless against the highly transmissible Omicron variant, as the rest of the world has long since learned. And so, case numbers spiralled, and by April 10th, the city’s daily caseload was 25,173 asymptomatic, 914 symptomatic. (Those were the official figures. Official figures should always be greeted with a raised eyebrow when dealing with the Communist Party.)
Some unfortunate citizens have allegedly been sealed or padlocked into their homes. Many went without food or vital medicines for days on end, and a few resorted to growing vegetables inside their flats. Others stormed and looted a supermarket. Meanwhile, food sat rotting in bags at the city’s outskirts, after delivery drivers arrived and found no one available to receive their goods. Positive virus cases were herded into enormous makeshift quarantine centres, where they remained for weeks in open cubicles with no privacy and no shower facilities. No doubt dreading this, some flatly refused to leave their houses, and were dragged out by the hair.
These are hardly unusual scenes in the context of 73 years of Communist Party rule. The CCP has always inflicted unnecessary suffering on the lives of ordinary people. But in the Internet age, that suffering is instantly visible. Viral videos show the outside world a thousand tragic stories: a COVID prevention worker beating a Corgi to death because the dog’s owner had been taken into quarantine; a mob of policemen in white protective gear accosting a man in the street and savagely kicking and punching him; a paramedic sitting impassively in an ambulance, ignoring a woman as she screams that her male companion’s “heart has stopped!”; babies and children packed five to a bed in those grim quarantine centres, having been separated from their parents after testing positive.
There were also snapshots of absurdity. Robot dogs patrolled the empty streets warning everyone to stay inside. One video showed citizens opening their flat window to sing as a form of protest, only to find themselves confronted by a hovering drone. “Control your desire for freedom,” it told them.
The CCP’s Zero COVID policy has produced tragedies throughout the pandemic. On New Year’s Day, during lockdown in the city of Xi’an, a heavily pregnant woman was left waiting outside a hospital in the winter cold because her negative COVID test result was invalid by just a few hours. She lost her baby, and when her niece later posted an account of the incident on Weibo (the Chinese Twitter), censors removed it. Hospital staff were eventually punished after a public outcry, scapegoats for their blundering masters in Beijing, who have never once faced the consequences of their actions. (Perhaps anticipating the same scapegoating in Shanghai, the director of Hongkou District’s health commission information centre is reported to have killed himself on April 13th.) Another Xi’an resident died of a heart attack after he was also refused entry to a hospital. And, of course, the city experienced food shortages, but these failed to commandeer headlines in the same manner as the Shanghai crisis.
Beijing has spent two years claiming that Zero COVID proves the superiority of China’s “socialist” system to the rest of the world. Such claims are no longer possible following the chaos in Shanghai. It’s not the opinion of the rest of the world, however, that really matters, it’s the opinion of the beleaguered Chinese. They are the ones the Communist Party truly fears. Until recently, most citizens appear to have supported the country’s multiple lockdowns, and occasional online dissenters have been widely vilified. But hunger will change people’s minds like nothing else could.
In a leaked phone conversation, an official from the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention stated frankly that asymptomatic or mild cases would be better off staying at home, and that Zero COVID is driven by politics rather than public health concerns. The phone call is now being investigated by authorities, but the official was right. At this stage, the policy has become entangled with Xi’s credibility, which is why he has been unwilling to let it go. He may have no choice in the end. Mao’s catastrophic Great Leap Forward was abandoned in 1961, leaving the Chairman’s authority severely undermined. Perhaps we are about to see something similar. In Shanghai’s case, officials announced on April 11th that neighbourhoods with no positive cases for two weeks would now be classified as “low-risk” and eligible for “appropriate activity.”
Meanwhile, Beijing continues to divert criticism as much as possible. Friends of mine in China tell me that state media claims evidence has been reported that Americans deliberately released SARS-CoV-2 back in 2019. Viewers are assured that the only reason this has not caused a global outcry is because the evidence was presented on Russian websites which the West has “banned.”
In any event, it doesn’t matter how many citizens are convinced by shifty tales of the pandemic’s origins back in 2019. That was then, this is now. The day-to-day reality for many people is the hardship produced by the Party in the name of Zero Covid. And so, the Party will be the focus of their anger. Unless Xi’s hand is forced, disaster beckons. Omicron will continue to spread at a terrific rate, the government will continue to shut down cities, disrupting lives and producing personal tragedies like the unfortunate Xi’an mother, and the people will only get angrier.
On April 13th, a statement to the effect that the US has the world’s worst human rights record began trending on Weibo (the Party, of course, chooses what is trending and what is not). But netizens started using the hashtag to mock the government for the Shanghai crisis (sample post: “China is the most human rights deprived and authoritarian country in the world”). For a few hours, censors appeared to be sleeping on the job, and Weibo rapidly became host to a torrent of criticism and derision. As one commenter noted, “This is the true voice of the people. Let’s commemorate tonight.” Around 4am the Internet police got out of bed and proceeded to delete everything.
We’d been given a glimpse, however, of the China that simmers beneath the surface. Not the dull entity the Party invokes in its official statements—the mindless, homogenous “nation” whose “feelings” are perpetually hurt by this or that international slight—but the real Chinese people. They are an altogether more cynical, unpredictable, and spirited prospect, and in many ways the natural enemy of the Communist Party.
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