Shanghai remains under a citywide lockdown aimed at containing China’s largest COVID-19 outbreak since the start of the pandemic. This has resulted in massive disruption, widespread food shortages and the tragic deaths of non-COVID patients deprived of timely care. The situation is putting a strain on state-society relations in China, which has enjoyed a high degree of political stability since Xi Jinping became president in 2013.
First and foremost, the outbreak in China’s financial hub is straining the relationship between the Chinese Communist Party government and the masses it claims to represent. In shutting down the megacity, the authorities have withdrawn basic freedoms on an unprecedented scale, all for a COVID-clearing objective that many citizens question, given the very low numbers of severe infections and fatalities.
While Shanghai’s 25 million-strong population has complied with the lockdown, the party-state has struggled to uphold its part of the social-political bargain. Food security is a sensitive topic in China, where human-caused famines killed tens of millions before and after the CCP assumed power in 1949. Yet in 2022, in China’s most affluent city, people have been relying on handouts and bartering to obtain basic provisions.
The absurdity of this situation has not been lost on Shanghai’s underfed residents. Despite strict censorship, many have voiced criticisms and shared scenes of disorder online, while some have shouted complaints from their windows as local officials awkwardly tour residential compounds.
Meanwhile, thousands have been forced from their homes and sent to mass quarantine centers, where conditions can be unhygienic and inhumane. In one flashpoint, residents protested after being forcibly removed from their apartment building so that it could be turned into a quarantine facility.
Such events have provoked a complex mix of emotions among the Shanghainese, who are known to generally resent interference from the capital but have mostly blamed this crisis on missteps by city officials. It is against this backdrop that another strained relationship comes into focus: that of central and local government.
Shanghai had been pursuing a more tolerant containment policy than Beijing’s zero-COVID strategy, which was reportedly considered a pilot for a potential broader tilt toward coexistence. But as the city’s infections soared, the experiment was abruptly ended, and Vice Premier Sun Chunlan was sent in to effectively usurp local party chief Li Qiang.
Sun, Li, and state media outlets have subsequently made repeated calls to “persist with zero COVID in accordance with the General Secretary’s orders,” clearly attributing the renewed hard-line approach to Xi. This messaging suggests that Beijing felt its authority was undermined and that the prospect of any local divergence was ultimately unpalatable.
The center’s intervention in Shanghai has a significance that goes beyond the current outbreak. Li, an ally of Xi, had been expected to join the CCP’s Politburo Standing Committee at this year’s 20th National Party Congress. Shanghai has long been a steppingstone to high political office, and Li was seen as a contender to become China’s next premier, a prospect which now looks dim.
The apparent overruling of Shanghai’s more tolerant attitude to COVID-19 also shows how CCP governance has ossified, departing from the adaptive approach that thrived under Mao Zedong and successive reform era leaders. According to political scientists Sebastian Heilman and Elizabeth J. Perry, grassroots experimentalism or “guerrilla policy style” was once a key source of legitimacy for the Chinese government. Under Xi, however, Beijing has clearly shifted to favor top-down policymaking, restricting the space for initiative and pragmatism at lower levels.
For some commentators, the present situation exemplifies this point, and even warrants comparisons with the madness of a Mao-era sparrow extermination campaign. Despite zero COVID’s increasingly weak rationale, Xi’s government cannot yet countenance a course correction, having spun its earlier success as a triumph of authoritarianism and a new source of legitimacy for the CCP.
Herein lies another tension that has been escalated by the Shanghai crisis: the contest between liberal and illiberal political systems. After the U.S. consulate in Shanghai ordered staff to evacuate the city, China’s foreign ministry accused it of weaponizing the situation. Yet for two years Beijing has portrayed the United States’ COVID-19 policy as chaotic and has continued to deflect attention toward events in the West, even as the Shanghai crisis has escalated.
In a video that circulated on Chinese social media before being censored, a Shanghai policeman told an individual being restrained that the lockdown was the result of international tensions and that only the CCP could save China from a coming war with the United States. When Shanghai’s outbreak is eventually tamed, state media will no doubt celebrate a “victory” that the CCP alone could have achieved.
But this will be a pyrrhic victory, for zero COVID continues to impose ever-greater costs and limit options for an exit strategy. Entrenched its own propaganda positions, Beijing is not willing to adopt a lenient Western-style approach or import vaccines from the West, instead doubling down on homegrown, hardline tactics. But Shanghai residents are losing patience with this approach, as was stated in a widely circulated blog post.
To be clear, I do not predict an existential threat to the CCP, as is often forecasted during moments of crisis. However, the danger for Beijing is that by continuing to prioritize zero COVID, it risks destabilizing the broader socio-political fabric. And in a year when Xi is expected to break with recent convention to seek a third term in office, this simmering of political tensions has come at the worst possible time.