Many of its cities, including Beijing, have resorted to community lockdowns to stem the spread of the virus, sparking several protests against the signature initiative of President Xi Jinping.
Officials have imposed severe restrictions in several districts, with shops, schools and restaurants closed. This has led to panic buying in many cities, including Beijing, with people fearing that the government may begin city-wide lockdowns across China like it did during the start of the pandemic.
Delivery apps like Alibaba Group Holding Ltd’s Freshippo — known as Hema in Chinese — and Walmart Inc’s Sam’s Club were running out of capacity to deliver on Thursday, and other grocery outlets in Chaoyang, Beijing’s biggest district, were no longer taking orders.
Improvised quarantine centers and field hospitals hastily thrown up in gymnasiums, exhibition centers and other large, open indoor spaces have become notorious for overcrowding, poor sanitation, scarce food supplies and lights that stay on 24 hours.
The latest number of cases surpass the 29,317 infections recorded on April 13, 2022, during the height of the lockdown in Shanghai where over 25 million people were confined to their homes for months, drawing public protests.
‘iPhone city’ under lockdown
Other cities have had to revert to the old playbook as cases spread within communities.
Zhengzhou, home to the world’s largest iPhone factory, effectively went into lockdown from Friday for five days.
Authorities have ordered residents of eight districts in Zhengzhou, in the central province of Henan, not to leave the area for the next five days, building barriers around “high-risk” apartment buildings and setting up checkpoints to restrict travel.
There have been only a handful of coronavirus cases in the city.
Foxconn’s flagship iPhone plant in Zhengzhou has been grappling with strict Covid-19 restrictions that have fuelled discontent among workers and disrupted production ahead of Christmas and January’s Lunar New Year holiday, as many workers were either put into isolation or fled the plant.
Shijiazhuang, a city close to Beijing that eased a raft of testing in the wake of the new directives, had to backtrack within a few days and ask people to stay home.
Officials are having to reconcile twin imperatives of being less disruptive with their restrictions while also continuing to suppress the virus, in line with China’s Covid Zero policy.
While health officials and state media continue to reinforce the need to adhere to “dynamic zero,” authorities have struggled to bring outbreaks under control.
The curbs are also beginning to fray the patience of the citizens with many cities reporting localised protests against the often draconian restrictions. Chinese citizens, particularly those in urban centers, are becoming increasingly agitated after almost three years of restrictions under the country’s Covid Zero policy.
A recent analysis by Freedom House found that from July to September this year, China saw 37 cases of dissent against Covid-19 restrictions, including large street demonstrations and online hashtag movements with hundreds of thousands of posts, linked to at least 14 provinces or directly administered cities.
The cases of dissent against the Covid pandemic have only risen since then.
As virus cases continue to climb, officials resorted to lockdowns of huge apartment blocks and commercial buildings, confining people to their flats.
Besides Beijing, big outbreaks have been reported in Guangzhou, and Chongqing besides Jinan, Xian, Chengdu and Lanzhou.
The lockdown of 6 million people in Zhengzhou follows clashes between police and workers furious over pay. The lockdown orders came after protests erupted over conditions and pay at Foxconn’s vast iPhone factory on the outskirts of the city, with fresh images of rallies emerging on Friday.
Video footage published on social media showed a large group of people walking down a street in the east of the city, some holding signs.
The unrest in Zhengzhou comes against the backdrop of mounting public frustration over Xi’s zero-tolerance approach to Covid, which compels local authorities to impose gruelling lockdowns, travel restrictions and mass testing.
In the southeastern manufacturing hub of Guangzhou, millions of people have been ordered not to leave their homes without a negative virus test.
Social media footage published on Friday showed residents of the city’s Haizhu district dismantling barricades and throwing objects at police in hazmat attire.
Protests becoming more frequent
The continued tension over Covid curbs and resultant stress on the economy has pushed many people to speak out against the administration.
According to Freedom House’s China Dissent Monitor, 668 incidents of dissent were observed in the country from July to September this year.
“Among them, 636 cases (95%) occurred offline, such as demonstrations, strikes, and occupations, while 32 cases (5%) involved online dissent,” it said.
The report said the greatest number of events occurred in the provinces of Hebei (77), Henan (72), Guangdong (49) and Shaanxi (49).
From nationwide protests by property owners to public anger over frequents lockdowns, there have been several instances of dissent in China.
According to the report, among all the documented cases, 214 (32%) involved delayed housing projects, 110 (17%) involved pay and benefits, and 106 (16%) involved fraud.
In fact, it now appears that cases of dissent have now shifted from property buyers to people fed up with the frequent lockdowns.
IMF criticism of Covid policy
The zero-Covid measures are darkening the outlook for the world’s second-largest economy and dampening hopes that China would significantly ease its outlier coronavirus policy any time soon.
The International Monetary Fund urged China to further recalibrate its Covid-19 strategy and boost vaccination rates.
“Although the zero-Covid strategy has become nimbler over time, the combination of more contagious Covid variants and persistent gaps in vaccinations have led to the need for more frequent lockdowns, weighing on consumption and private investment,” IMF official Gita Gopinath said.
China needs a “recalibration” of its zero-Covid strategy to bring its economy back on track while relying on market reforms to raise productivity and deliver medium- and long-term growth, said Gopinath.
(With inputs from agencies)