Shanghai is finally opening up after three months of coercive detention, although China has effectively been in a state of lockdown for two years. Horror stories abound: of employees who found their office doors chained shut during the working day, and were condemned to stay there for months, scrabbling around for food, like a scene from Lord of the Flies; of a woman who was walking a neighbour’s dog being snatched and taken to a quarantine hotel, where she was held in one room, with the dog, for ten weeks. Almost every day, PPE-clad health workers would barge into people’s homes, drench personal belongings in disinfectant and remove family members to detention camps.
The seemingly irrational, self-defeating Zero Covid strategies in recent months have destabilised economic growth, at huge and cruel expense to the Chinese people. Shanghai’s economy has lost around £135 billion due to the latest lockdown, with huge numbers of job losses and business failures. Yet perhaps more importantly, Zero Covid has managed to germinate the seeds of dissent that the Chinese Communist Party has spent decades carefully suppressing.
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President Xi Jinping is keen to avoid any association with the grim realities of the Mao era, particularly as he tries to consolidate his position as the Great Helmsman of China for a historic third term. Yet we can’t ignore the obvious parallels between Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward and the current Zero Covid era.
It is 60 years since the end of the grotesque Great Leap Forward experiment (1958-1962), when Mao attempted to rapidly industrialise China’s economy at huge human cost. Every village set up mini furnaces to reach absurd steel manufacturing targets under the pretext of rivalling the West. Furniture was chopped up to feed the fires and cooking utensils smelted into worthless ingots. Meanwhile, forced land collectivisation — involving the seizure of private farms, the torture and execution of landowners, and nonsensical agricultural techniques — led to catastrophic grain shortages and widespread famine.
Ordinary people were dragooned into this mass lunacy that produced nothing but suffering. Over those terrible four years, up to 45 million Chinese people died of starvation, or were simply beaten and worked to death. It is a sordid period in Chinese history, seldom talked about openly still. Partly as a result of such wanton destruction of its own population, China became a pariah state across the world.
This national tragedy afflicted all corners of the country and, to greater or lesser extent, affected every single Chinese family. Chinese people have learned to live with the shame, horror and sometimes the guilt of what went before. “(Ni) chi le ma?” is an everyday greeting, meaning “have you eaten yet?”, with resonances of the terrible consequences of famine. The common phrase “mei banfa” means “there is no other choice” — a fateful resignation to hardship and an ultimate expression of futility among a citizenry with no meaningful democratic accountability.
But the state too has been shaped by historical experience. President Xi’s father Xi Zhongxun was purged in 1962 and demoted to a lowly position at Mao’s command. Xi himself was publicly denounced at the age of nine and sent to live in a cave in a remote region of Shaanxi Province, where he worked the land for many years. Of course, that’s not to excuse Xi’s authoritarian tendencies as the product of a dysfunctional parent or being mistreated as a child, but his instinct is to avoid inflaming memories of the bad old days. It’s odd then that, much like Mao, Xi appears to be sabotaging the Chinese economy in pursuit of ideological Zero Covid goals.
The Mao-era “Four Pests” campaign during the Great Leap Forward was targeted at the extermination of mosquitoes, flies, rats, and sparrows. For a country striving to increase its agricultural productivity, these pests were blighting crops, eating the seeds, and destroying the stores. Peasants were compelled to stand in their villages banging pots and pans, blowing whistles, or shaking rattles in order to make so much noise that the sparrows could not rest. The birds had to stay on the wing until they died of exhaustion and fell to the ground. Over the course of the campaign, one billion sparrows were killed.
With hindsight — or perhaps a bit more forethought — the Chinese authorities might have realised that destroying the sparrows would leave fewer birds to eat other pests. The destruction of one immediate nuisance — the sparrow population — simply gave insects the opportunity to thrive. With nothing to keep the insect population in check, the number of locusts increased massively, and crop yields collapsed. Famine ensued. This farce was not a conscious act of self-destruction, but merely a set of idiotic targets set by apparatchiks ignorant of, or unconcerned by, the knock-on effects of their instructions.
Today, China has been equally ruthless in its attempt to eradicate Covid. It is chasing an impossible dream of Zero Covid but cannot back down for fear of shattering public faith in the Party’s infallibility. However, politicians are oblivious to the unintended consequences of their actions. An assault on civil liberties has been the Party’s only consistent tactic for two years, confining what they believe to be a compliant population to barracks — literally in some cases. The noise of stranded families standing at their windows, banging pots and pans to express their anger and disquiet was an ironic flashback to a failed zero-sparrow policy of 60 years ago. As before, pests are not tolerated.
Locking innocent people up certainly looks like Chairman Mao-style totalitarianism. In Shanghai, with a population of 25 million, the authorities confined almost every single person in their apartment for three months. The state’s mouthpiece, China Daily, excused the draconian lockdown measures by pointing out that “China could face 1.55 million COVID-19 deaths if it abandons the current dynamic zero-COVID policy”. As far as the Party is concerned, the revival of the memory of millions of deaths during the Great Leap Forward could not be countenanced today. As a result, China’s Covid response has been driven by an absolute insistence that rising fatality statistics must be avoided at all costs.
Official statistics should be taken with a pinch of salt, but at the moment the authorities claim that there have been fewer than 5,000 deaths in China since January 2020. (India, with a comparable population has recorded 100 times as many, for instance.) Yet how many tragedies lie behind those locked doors of residential compounds? Like starlings, people in high-rise buildings haven’t been allowed to touch the ground for months and many have surely collapsed with exhaustion.
Watching thousands of residents of Beijing or Shanghai immediately leave the city after being released from lockdown says a lot about their fear that the government can shut down their lives again. Maybe, just maybe, the Party doesn’t work in their interests. Middle-class residents have been shocked by the destruction of livelihoods in some of the most modern cities of the world. A mood of unease has flowered, posing a rare challenge to the Party’s authority. For a country that relies on harmonious social stability, this is a growing problem for the president.
Admittedly, at present, things are positive as lockdowns wind down and people flock to the streets to drink and chat, but also to complain, to criticise and to conspire. The repopulation of the streets shows that life is being restored in Chinese cities as the people start to rebuild, but the sense of resentment and anger is not something that can be dispelled easily. Already we have seen student protests at a number of Beijing universities. Will Xi avoid the temptation to clamp down on dissenting voices, critical opinions, and seething anger in the hope that the population go back to their everyday lives and try to forget what has just happened?
Xi will do whatever it takes to maintain his authority. But rather than emulate Mao’s crackdown on dissent during the Great Leap Forward, it is likely he’ll simply ramp up the state machine of high-tech surveillance. It won’t look as brutal as the vicious state control of the past although it is destined to be even more insidious. Whether people accept it, after what they have been through, is an open question.