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In Shanghai, Zero Covid means zero freedom

Credit: Getty

April 6, 2022 - 1:40pm

With all eyes on Ukraine, it’s worth reminding ourselves that Covid — and the policy response to Covid — continues to disrupt the world. 

There’s no better proof of that right now than the lockdown in Shanghai. The Chinese city is, by some definitions, the world’s biggest. It is also has the world’s most important container port — a focal point for supply chains spanning the globe. 

The impact of the lockdown can be seen in the following VesselsValue chart, tweeted out by Andreas Steno Larsen:  

Over a twelve-month period it shows the number of ships waiting to load or discharge at Shanghai. The blue and red lines allow us to compare 2021 to what’s happening this year. Against the long-term average (shown in black), we can see clear signs of disruption starting in August last year — which is when supply chain bottlenecks started to develop at container ports across the world. But while that was bad enough, the current situation is much worse. 

Depending on how long the lockdown lasts in Shanghai and other Chinese cities, there will be knock-on impacts on the global economy. However, the effects are complicated. Though any restriction to the supply of Chinese exports will push up inflation in the West, the continuing lockdowns are constraining Chinese demand for oil and gas imports — helping to limit the surge in global energy prices. It’s too early to tell how these factors will balance out over time.

What we can see clearly, however, are the limitations of China’s “Zero Covid” policy. With Europe learning to live with Covid, the Chinese approach — which once drew grudging admiration — now doesn’t look so effective. 

While a case can be made for lockdowns as a temporary sure before the roll-out of vaccines, the Chinese policy of ongoing lockdowns and inadequate vaccination is clearly not a winner. 

That’s especially true when the lockdown policy is as draconian as it is in China. In Shanghai it involves testing all 25 million residents — and carting off the infected to quarantine facilities. Almost all vehicle movements are prohibited and most businesses have been closed — apart from essential services like food shops. However, in some areas of the city, residents aren’t even allowed to leave their homes to get food. 

It’s an intolerable situation — and a test of the state’s ability to control its people’s behaviour and contain their protests. The dystopian scenes coming out of China include a robot dog patrolling a deserted street with a propaganda-spewing speaker strapped to its back. And then there’s the aerial drone (see above) flying through the night sky instructing residents to “control your soul’s desire for freedom… do not open the window or sing…”

For many of us in the West, China’s apparently successful Covid policy was a bitter irony (given the origin of the pandemic). But, as with Russia’s war in Ukraine, we can see that the ruthless efficiency of the authoritarian state is certainly ruthless, but not so efficient.

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.


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Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
2 years ago

If the UK government tries anything like this ever again, we must resist tooth and nail.

Paul Walsh
Paul Walsh
2 years ago
Reply to  Drahcir Nevarc

They even think a case can be made for locking down in this article.

J Bryant
J Bryant
2 years ago

a test of the state’s ability to control its people’s behaviour
That’s the really interesting question for me. I understand that China is an authoritarian state and, based on my limited knowledge of Chinese history, always has been to some extent. But surely even authoritarian states have their limits.
I would love to read an article written by a Chinese journalist describing the people’s attitude to these lockdowns. Is there any possibility of meaningful opposition to the CCP? It’s hard to believe China can allow its population to live an increasingly Western lifestyle without a hint of Western individualism and suspicion of government creeping in. China isn’t North Korea.

David Uzzaman
David Uzzaman
2 years ago

The Zero Covid = Zero Freedom is I’m sure a happy coincidence for the CCP.