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Add Oil! – The Tragedy of Zero-Covid

You see, they say, we told you so. Socialist utopia has failed once again – the fantasies of Xi Jinping, insane autocratic chairman for life, that he could stop hundreds of thousands of his own people from dying for no good reason, have been defeated, and now it is so that China will have to return, coughing and spluttering, to the real world, where we have pragmatically and sensibly defeated the coronavirus by forgetting about it. The Chinese masses have risen up, Xi has eaten humble pie, and democracy has proven its superiority over authoritarianism by its capacity to absorb mass death and healthcare collapse and policy failure without even losing the mandate of heaven.

No, I’m not bitter. I am a little.

Zero-Covid, as we call it, was unsustainable by November 2022. That’s not really in dispute. The Chinese government could have done better at various points. Yeah, no arguments there. But was it true that the draconian Zero-Covid policy was destroyed in the end by the Rebel Alliance of protesters, that good triumphed over evil, that the whole thing was a tale of political hubris ended in deserved defeat? Fuck no. What it was – well, it’s too soon to know. But I can say, now that it’s over, that I was here at the start of Zero-Covid and I was here at the end of it (more or less – I was in Hong Kong at the exact moment). Today I’m going to talk about what my Zero-Covid experience was. Not Wuhan 2020 (I was in Chengdu for that, technically), but my daily life under the “draconian” regime that supposedly was worse than the virus it was trying to fight. Now for most of the last three years that experience has actually been pretty pedestrian. Nothing much happened. Of course you don’t want to hear about my experience scanning health codes everyday and otherwise living normally – so I’m going to narrow it down to five major periods since 2020 that have stuck with me. And then we’ll talk a little about what it all meant.

1: People’s War

In many respects, the time from February 2020 to let’s say May 2020 was the time where my pandemic experience was the most like everyone else’s. I worked from home, online – I masked up and socially-distanced myself and enjoyed WhatsApp calls (Zoom is blocked for mainland Chinese users) with similarly locked-down relatives. I read a lot of books, played many new video games, drank many beers and gained an embarrassing amount of weight. When people talk about ‘Zero-Covid’ they’re thinking of an institutionalised system of health codes and lockdown mechanisms, and their support systems through neighborhood committees and local governments, mass testing initiatives and the dreaded quarantine camps. But this did not exist in 2020 – not in its entirety. Neighborhood committees supervised those coming and going into local communities, but were still themselves new to such power and didn’t really use it very visibly except putting security guards outside of entrances and barricading other ways in. Health codes came into being in Guangzhou around April, but there were no mass testing drives that year and no lockdowns, draconian or otherwise. 2020 in China was a year of enormous tension followed by relaxation, as the Wuhan lockdown served its purpose and The Virus was contained.

I’ve written about my initial experience of this in Chengdu before, and the fear of that first month did not abate for a while – Guangzhou remained silent for a long time, not only out of government restriction but because nobody wanted to go out. Alone in this city, with foreign friends leaving for the supposedly virus-free outside world, I wandered formerly-busy streets by myself. I didn’t have enough masks for a while and on several occasions used children’s ones, the only kind available. I spent the post-Spring Festival period staying with my then-girlfriend in her apartment in Panyu District’s urban centre of Shiqiao. We washed our hands often and kept our shoes outside of the flat, just in case. I ordered a lot of takeout food, and unable to collect it from outside my door because my community was sealed off to just a single entrance watched by a security guard, I became used to little trips downstairs to pick up my lunch/dinner, striking up short chats with the guards who in Panyu style spoke mingled Mandarin-Cantonese. I wrote a whole lot (started this very blog, in fact).

This was the “People’s War” declared by Xi Jinping on February 6th, in which we were all soldiers whose duty was to do as little as possible. And hey, most people were fine with it. We did our bit and while it was a very surreal time, it was not anywhere near as dark as the lurid stories in western media of people being welded into homes, mass detainment and a mystery virus that had killed perhaps millions of Chinese in secret (as we knew from hanging around crematoria, a ghoulish China reporter habit that has resumed as of late 2022). But there were problems. One was discrimination against anyone with a Wuhan household registration or ID card, as I saw in Chengdu when overwhelmed staff at a tourist destination simply checked ID cards and sent anyone with ‘Wuhan’ on theirs home, and another, a little more serious, was discrimination against foreigners. When the outbreak in Italy caught fire I was at a friend’s flat, dealing with the stuff he’d left behind after leaving China overnight in a fit of paranoia, and the landlord asked me and my other friend, us both there to scavenge what we could, “Are you guys from Italy?” – when we said no, England, he visibly relaxed. Once I was denied service at a restaurant, the waiter nervously telling me that there was no dining in when tables of local people were busy behind him. The habit certain people had of masking up upon seeing me – or on several occasions running – continuously irked, and would continue all through the pandemic. But these are small things and nothing, it should be emphasised, compared to the horrible racism visited upon Asians in western countries at this time.

The real trouble came for African residents of Guangzhou. Guangzhou has a large African community, near the downtown area of Sanyuanli, and many of these residents reported landlords refusing to settle them, restaurants refusing to allow them in, on an unhappily large scale in early 2020. At once these were reversed – and posters were up all over the city warning severely in Chinese, English and French against any discrimination towards foreign residents in epidemic prevention and control etc.. But it spoke to the fear of those days, a fear that didn’t often bubble over into racism but was endemic for all that. So little was known about Covid – so little was known about Wuhan. Amongst the chattering middle classes Li Wenliang’s tragic death still smarted. The city as mentioned haemorrhaged foreign residents. But gradually this fear began to ease up, because what became apparent as the year went on, as we all went back to work and the Wuhan lockdown was lifted, was that whatever the hell else had gone on the People’s War had sort of worked.

And it was not trumpeted as Xi Jinping’s People’s War In The Name of Socialism, or whatever you might read now that terms it as the outcome only of some government hack’s propaganda campaign – it was a semi-organic realisation, a point of real surprise and then pride, that as the rest of the world dissolved into dysfunction and disaster we in fact were relaxing. In early 2020 many residential communities in Guangzhou were checkpointed by health workers with electronic thermometers, and each checkpoint bore above it a large fluttering Communist Party flag, yellow hammer and sickle against red backdrop; before the propaganda machine started talking of the narrative of victory against the virus under the leadership of the Communist Party etc., this narrative had already come into existence by this simple but brilliant bit of visual association. Nobody would have called it the Communist Party’s victory in early 2020; but everyone had already begun to accept that what we/they had done had worked. From a ghost world to a normal one; borders remained closed, but at that time nobody much wanted to travel home to the UK with its endless lockdowns or the US with its soaring death rate. As 2020 rolled on I found myself consoling family in chats, telling people back home that things were fine over here and it being true. I found that the truth of Zero-Covid in 2020 was that it had been a very good idea. This, of course, was only Year One.

2: I Am Curious Yellow

A 2020 memory that foreshadowed much of 2021 was early in the rollout of Guangzhou’s health code system, when the checkpoints that became omnipresent later were first being set up. I was trying to get into my local Vanguard supermarket, to do the groceries – I went up to the checkpoint and opened my Suikang app and scanned the QR code, sure to find the green code that would let me pass. But nothing happened. The auntie manning the checkpoint watched me, slightly nervous at this enormous foreigner’s presence. This QR code was not for Suikang – it was for Yuekang, the other Guangzhou health code app. This was a problem. Suikang allowed users to register with a foreign ID document (a passport). Yuekang did not, and the app would not give me my green code. I explained this to the auntie: I’m a foreigner, I can’t use Yuekang, I have Suikang, please let me buy rice and bananas. But she only shook her head. I went home and ordered a delivery of groceries instead.

At the time this seemed a minor hiccup. I saw in 2021 celebrating with the girlfriend and some other good friends in Guangzhou’s glitzy Party Pier, on a rooftop bar overlooking the Pearl River where we drank tremendous amounts of expensive alcohol, in a return to the decadence of pre-pandemic life. In 2021 everything had failed everywhere else – we, to the astonishment of the world and somewhat to ourselves were partying. I had lost friends in 2020 not to Covid but to hastily-booked flights home. No one I knew had the virus and no one I knew was in lockdown. “New Covid infections pose challenge to Xi’s leadership”, said the British newspaper the Observer on January 24th – but nobody was thinking in these terms at all that I knew, and I feel confident to say probably very few except the terminally in dissent were. Yet the Delta variant did arrive, and cases rose here and there, by minute amounts. There were sporadic lockdowns in other places. This was the year in which Zero-Covid as a system really began to exist, largely because it had to. In 2020 after Wuhan the danger of the virus largely disappeared, and life was normalized under a largely minimally-intrusive test-and-trace system which I personally and many others never even consciously noticed. In 2021 this changed, and it changed quite dramatically; the health code system was met with its new best friend, the mass testing system, and it was here that the legend of dabai, Big White, the ubiquitous health worker in that funny-looking all-white hazmat suit, began to appear as well, as the adhoc militias of volunteers were formalised into a standing army of epidemic prevention and control staff. It was at the same time that the UK and US were supposedly saved by mass vaccination, when the pandemic was decided to be over; here, the narrative goes, is where China forked left and we right, and China turned out to have taken the wrong turn.

But actually in 2021 before mass testing arrived vaccination was the hot topic on everyone’s lips; China’s vaccines were here and we foreigners all wanted to know how to get them. A private hospital in Panyu District, in the wealthy Clifford area, was offering vaccines for foreigners; I booked an appointment there and got my shots easily, no fuss, no problem, and despite what you might believe now I was far from the only person. China never mandated vaccines, but in 2021 there was a whole lot of effort to get it done, and within the period from March to June most people I knew – young and middle-class, to be sure, which is the problem faced now – got their two or three shots of Sinovac. Propaganda advising people to get vaccinated was everywhere; many places offered perks for hesitant elderly people to try, to ultimately little avail. There was no scorning of vaccination – but rather it did not become the only way out of the pandemic as in the west at that time, because frankly nobody felt it was the only way out. Most people hadn’t seen Covid at all since January 2020. Trust in the system was solid.

And the system was tested by Delta, and while it passed mostly everywhere without major incident this was the first sign we had since that prior January of it showing its muscle – and with that muscles its weaknesses. My experience of this was when Delta came to Liwan.

Liwan District is part of ‘old Guangzhou’, the historical city where people all speak Cantonese, of old buildings and in-progress apartment towers, and it is probably, compared to Yuexiu and Haizhu, the poorest area of such; it’s where I live now, and in 2021 it was where my girlfriend lived, as we hadn’t yet moved in together. But I stayed over at her apartment one night, despite a warning that several Covid cases had been found – the next day back in Panyu District at my apartment in sleepy suburban Qiaonan I found that my Suikang code had gone from a pleasant green to a stark, terrifying yellow. Yellow wasn’t red, the colour of quarantine, but it meant I couldn’t take the bus or subway, or go into any shopping malls – it also meant, more importantly, that I couldn’t go to work.

The way to fix this was of course to get a PCR test. A PCR test with a negative result would fix my colour. But – and this is something you seldom hear about now, in the stereotype of Zero-Covid with its endless mass testing campaigns – I didn’t know how. At that time there were no street testing booths and I didn’t have the Wechat miniprograms for linking test results to your health code, and testing was only done for people who’d been extremely unlucky, and in Guangzhou we’d been very lucky so far. Eventually I figured out my local clinic was offering quick tests for yellow code holders, and I went and explained it to them and they gave me a form to fill in – three pages, all to be written in Chinese; and as a foreigner I mostly wrote using Wechat’s handy Pinyin-to-characters function and had the Chinese handwriting of a small child, so this took a long, long time – but eventually I got my test, and took a day off work and waited at home for it to change green, which it did (this test result, that of my first ever PCR test, remained the default ‘last test record’ on my Suikang app for almost a year afterwards). I was lucky once again.

Meanwhile Delta continued, and we saw our first mass testing drives in Qiaonan, a quiet area so far from Guangzhou that local people talked about the city as if it were another country. These two were far less organised and efficient than the stock image of Zero-Covid as authoritarian hypercompetence. A neighborhood volunteer knocked on my door one day and slipped me a ticket for a testing place and told me where it was and left, and I wandered on my own down to my first mass testing site and navigated my way through it. People milled around talking and laughing; the volunteers were not Big Whites but hospital staff in scrubs assisted by red-jacketed neighborhood volunteers. Nobody was taking the whole thing that seriously. I got my test within twenty minutes and left, going about my day.

There were several more mass testing events in Qiaonan that year, but mostly these were background noise. I went running around the neighborhood without my mask on, went to bars and parties and work without issue. Except for during those periods of increased tension that came with reported Covid cases nearby, many businesses even stopped checking Suikang codes regularly. The improvised barricades around my apartment building came down, and an automated thermometer replaced the security guard. Life, after the excitement of the vaccination drive and the first Guangzhou outbreak of any scale, returned to its late-2020 vibe; but the contours of the Zero-Covid system were more clearly defined now, semi-visible beneath the surface and ready to activate at a moment’s notice if they were triggered, a presence which had not existed in that 2020 bubble of normality.

This was readily shown by my girlfriend’s experience with the Covid outbreak in Liwan which began in June, that same mess which turned my health code yellow. I was fine – she, however, called me several days after this to explain that she was locked out of her home. The number of cases in Liwan had continued to rise, and abruptly the local government had declared the area her flat was situated in – Fangcun, a sleepy neighborhood with a few old factories, a couple of foreign businesses and a notable Christian church – to be in total lockdown, with no public transport in or out, all businesses closed, and all residents confined to their homes. All bad enough – but she had stopped to do some shopping after work and now was in Tianhe District far from home with no way to get back. She stayed overnight at my place in Panyu, and the next day eager to get back home she checked the group chat – what can I do, she asked. And the suggestion she received was to take the subway all the way to the border with Fangcun, get out and walk the whole one hour home.


So with no other choice, with all her clothes and things in Fangcun, she did. And she spent three weeks locked down, which was her first Zero-Covid rodeo and not her last (she also did inbound quarantine after a trip to Hong Kong in October of that year) – her perspective on government policy, therefore, has always been less rosy than my own, which in miniature was an early instance of the great divisions over the Zero-Covid policy that now litter Chinese social media. Fangcun in 2021 was no Shanghai in 2022 – nobody lacked food, nobody’s dog was killed, and three weeks wasn’t really that long a time. But I remember something she reported – while there was also Covid in Tianhe, people had said, there were never going to lock Tianhe down, because it was too important to the economy – and Fangcun and really all of Liwan was not. In the suddenness and arbitrariness of this lockdown and in the resentment it bred amongst people who lived through it – there were fireworks in Fangcun the day it ended – it presaged worse to come.

But despite that, in 2021 after the Party’s hundredth anniversary and the Delta surge the system still held, and still worked mostly well. Zero-Covid hadn’t failed Delta, while all of the western pundits had predicted it would. Testing and health codes and quarantines had become systemised, visible parts of daily life, and while they didn’t always work perfectly they served to insulate the majority of the population, people like me, from even noticing there was a pandemic on at all. In that sense one thing Zero-Covid was a victim of was its own success; after all, by keeping Chinese people from the terror of the real pandemic, it led certain of them – young, international-facing – to start to wonder if the virus really was anything more than a bad cold. But at that time these were only seeds, not to bloom until the whole system began to break down, as over the next year the virus decided it wasn’t out for the count just yet.

3: From Fangcun To Shanghai

What do I remember from then to the low point of 2022? Surprisingly little, which is probably indicative of something. The virus became slightly more present from then on, emerging in spurts here and there across the city and the country, but in Guangzhou we continued to be intensely lucky. The Zero-Covid system was embedded but nobody really paid it much attention; after my one yellow code in June of 2021 I never saw the thing change colour again until the twilight days of October 2022 (more on that later). My girlfriend not only made it to Hong Kong to see family and did the inbound quarantine coming back, but as well found time to spend weeks in Tibet travelling, with a few inconveniences caused by the health code system but not much more than that. There was little mass testing and little incentive to be tested. Life, uh, found a way.

What did shift in this time was the external narrative. Delta did not end Zero-Covid – meanwhile the outside world stumbled out of mass death into its vaccinated recovery. And this was where the narrative was born; as China continued upon a course that until that point had shown relatively little in terms of negative social or economic consequences, already western media began to talk of “the world’s last Zero-Covid holdout” and to wonder why this was. Basic psychology prevented the obvious answer – because the policy worked and worked well – from occurring, and so we began to be treated with the themes of 2022 in their infancy; Xi Jinping wanted a perfect birthday celebration for the Party, or a perfect Olympics, or took Zero-Covid as dogmatic proof of socialism’s superiority over capitalism, or simply liked the vast surveillance network it required. China was trapped in Zero-Covid and could not escape; it was the only way to control the virus, but At What Cost?

For most of the latter half of 2021 it was only nerds like me reading foreign newspapers over breakfast who noticed things like this. Within China the Big White meme had taken off, our white-clad pandemic heroes dancing on Douyin and depicted on propaganda posters and art; the official narrative had caught up to the reality now and was of course relishing it. These two worlds, of the sinister Zero-Covid policy viewed from without and the heroic, successful Zero-Covid viewed from within, had begun to take form. The propaganda struggle over China’s Covid policy, previously interrupted by the pandemic being a universal disaster, now began in earnest; the pandemic was over, so it was said by a west keen to dent the myth of Chinese political superiority that had begun to seed since 2020. No it wasn’t, China said. And unfortunately this was where the cracks in Zero-Covid began to appear.

In Jiangxi, in November 2021 – during a lockdown health workers had beaten a woman’s dog to death. This presaged the later December-January lockdown in Xi’an, where government mismanagement led to a pregnant woman’s miscarriage as she was denied hospital care due to not having a valid Covid test result. The lockdowns were growing larger and the negative consequences more visible, more grim little anecdotes like this stirring outrage on social media. In Guangzhou this did not happen – we were fine. But the stories continued and with them the increasing mumbles of dissent. “No one cares what you die of”, went an angry Weibo post, later deleted, “as long as it’s not Covid-19.” 2022 began for me with a night out with the girlfriend and one friend, in Tianhe’s swanky Liede area, just as packed as last time. But January saw more Covid tests, more viral bad news online. This new variant, Omicron, seemed to be much more transmissible.

And then: Shanghai. I was not in Shanghai, obviously. The shockwaves of that disastrous April lockdown were however felt even down south over here, and while Xi’an and Jiangxi had been rumblings this was a policy failure too grand to ignore, too big to censor away (they tried), too stunning to forget about. While in Guangzhou we continued our relatively peaceful, Covid-free life, Shanghai lurked behind every conversation, behind every news story about rising case numbers, behind every Covid test you got. I said goodbye to more friends in 2022, as the years away from home took their toll (and took their toll on me too). I had moved in with my girlfriend in her flat, and that brought me happiness, but again the tension of 2020 had returned, colouring every trip out and every place we went. Except this time, to use an unhappy Zero-Covid cliché, it wasn’t fear of the virus that caused this tension, but fear of the system.

How had this happened? It had not been intentional. Despite the florid language of “strict” lockdowns, “stamping out” infections etc. used in the foreign media, Zero-Covid had never been a system built on fear or on absolute control – in its most successful and peaceful days in 2020 the system had barely functioned as a unified thing and to a large extent never really did (every province continued to use separate, mutually-exclusive health code apps all the way to the end). The instant-lockdown, constant-testing system of 2022 was not how the policy had started or even how it had worked for most of its life, but occurred largely as a response to a situation that due to Omicron was rapidly becoming unmanageable. Shanghai’s lockdown began because the centre overruled the localities after a softer-touch policy failed, threatening a containment breach that would have hit all of China hard – the only option was to contain Shanghai, in a nevertheless cruel and brutal echo of the successful Wuhan lockdown two years before. As Covid evolved, Zero-Covid, which had never been designed to last this long, had to evolve too; and so it was that this loop of testing and lockdown, closing and then opening, became the only viable way to prevent its collapse.

And with this the unhappiness I saw in Fangcun in 2021 became larger; Fangcun had been asked to sacrifice three weeks to protect Guangzhou, and this was begrudgingly accepted, but asking cities of millions of people to sacrifice weeks and then months to protect everyone else increasingly became something that sapped the spirit of the People’s War more effectively than any amount of western anti-Zero-Covid propaganda. As the system had to scale up to fight ever-nastier strains of the virus its flaws – its arbitrariness, its lack of concern for exceptions to vast rules, what Beijing would later criticise as a “one-size-fits all approach to pandemic management” – were scaled up with it. Shanghai taught us all this, and broke the social contract which had underlined the Zero-Covid policy thus far. After Shanghai there was still pride in what had gone on before, and still broadly amongst people I knew an understanding that very few people wanted to live in America right now; but the question of when, exactly, this would end, became something asked more and more frequently.

4: The Longest Day

For much of the pandemic I was incredibly lucky; after June of 2021 I never experienced a major health code problem and I never saw a real lockdown, quarantine or God forbid the inside of a quarantine camp. This will, of course, colour my narrative. But too often with the narrative of Zero-Covid we allow our perceptions to be guided by the exceptional negative events, from Li Wenliang and welded-shut doors to dogs beaten to death to nightmare lockdowns. If you want to understand how Zero-Covid continued for so long even after Shanghai, after we had all seen that it could no longer protect us from either itself or the virus, you have to understand that for the vast majority of citizens in China even those who had heard of the Shanghai disaster had never experienced it. The change in my life from 2021 to 2022, for the first half of the year, was vibe-based, not material; while the system intensified and evermore tests and checks were required, by and large daily life continued as usual. Even amongst expats, always more sensitive to complaints from Shanghai English speakers, there was no sense that things were about to break down completely. We were not, in fact, all living in a vast prison camp. Still it was so that something had shifted.

After Shanghai and into the summer was the period of mass testing, as Omicron cases popped up all over Guangzhou and then entire neighbourhoods were ordered to queue up for hours to receive a Covid test, with the warning that not getting one would change your code colour to yellow. For days at a time the exterior of my community was busy with long lines for Covid tests, now administered – in an instance of the contradictory impulse that made Zero-Covid more efficient the less effective it was – via a system of miniprograms that enabled a Big White to scan your test code, swab you, and deliver the results to your Suikang within twelve hours. As the year went on and Covid continued to appear, as Xinjiang fell into the lockdown that would eventually total three months, the mass testing apparatus gave way to street testing, then to the air-conditioned Covid testing booths in every neighborhood that each day administered hundreds of tests to residents, as it became almost a daily habit to get testing, many districts requiring not only a negative result but a negative result obtained within forty-eight or even twenty-four hours. And these lovely and convenient Covid testing booths had a worrying sense of permanency to them as well. After Shanghai the sense of solidarity and national pride that had kept Zero-Covid working had frayed into nothing, but as long as the foundations of day-to-day existence for the majority of people were mostly untouched the policy could continue, and yet now those foundations were beginning to be disturbed.

This continued to escalate as Omicron proved unstoppable. Once travelling abroad had seemed the danger – in early 2022 travelling across the country became risky, with no guarantee you wouldn’t be caught in an outbreak or in a health code mess in another province. By autumn 2022 even travelling across the city had an air of uncertainty to it – at one point my commute was lengthened by the closure of several subway stations for a week, the kind of event which had become routine as districts opened and closed various parts of themselves on a rotating basis to try to fight the virus. By October my community needed a twenty-four hour Covid test to get in, and Covid tests were daily ritual for basically every resident of the city. Now: I took a trip to Nansha District for Mid-Autumn Festival and had a lovely time, cycling out in the countryside. I spent a National Day holiday on Baiyun Mountain out in the sunshine. I had no problems there. Life was still – still – not the prison camp. For me, it never was.

In October, however, I came the closest I had yet to the stereotypical Zero-Covid experience; as I left for work on October 6th there were Covid tests as usual and also police outside my apartment complex, a few too many police. At work I got messages from my girlfriend at home; there was talk, nervous talk, of positive cases in our building. We debated what I should do – go home? Find somewhere else to stay? In the end I went back to my community and now the barriers Chinese call “water horses” – water-filled red barriers used to block off Covid-positive communities – were being set up and the police were out in force, cordoning off the building. A cop leant into me as I approached. “I live here.” I helpfully told her, and she grunted, letting me past. I made my way through this barricade of uniforms and went home, with a hastily-purchased bottle of whiskey and a six-pack of beers in hand, to enjoy my first ever lockdown.

The community group chat was alive with talk. Most residential communities in China first set up these group chats during Covid, to coordinate lockdowns, testing and so on – by 2022 they had largely become centres for airing grievances and places for advertising. What was going on? How many days would it be? Nobody knew. There was very little communication. Health codes all red. Go downstairs for tests tomorrow. I drank my whiskey and settled down, in that stupid fucking English way, to do as I was told. The next day came and I worked from home, ate some breakfast, looked outside at the frozen neighborhood. I went downstairs to get my Covid test and went back up. People were listing problems in the group chat, talking about elderly people needing food, nobody knowing how long this would go on. It was quite shocking, to have the whole world shrunk into the shape of a single apartment. Now I began to sort of understand for the first time the Covid-Zero experience, the other side to it; the psychological unpleasantness of a sudden loss of freedom you had no choice in and no control over. My health code, for the first time since that June 2021 outbreak, had turned red.

In the end our lockdown ended as suddenly as it had begun – at midnight on that first day we were told that it would be lifted tomorrow. Celebrations, much rejoicing. My health code remained red for another day, as did many in the building, heralding much complaining too – but that was it, really. My first ever lockdown. Pretty pathetic. And yet I’d wager my brush up against the side of the great and terrible Leviathan was more typical of the average Chinese experience than the horror stories of Shanghai, of Wuhan, of Xinjiang; a glimpse here and there, a sense of danger for a few fleeting moments of what lurked beneath the ice before it vanished into the depths once more. The worst of Zero-Covid, even in those dysfunctional autumn days of 2022, was still far from universal – the core issue was that the dysfunction was spreading even as the system became ever-stricter and more intrusive, and that while once the dysfunction had, as in Fangcun in 2021, been part of the cost a minority had paid for the sustained freedom of the majority, Omicron had made it so this freedom was shorter in duration and more expensive than ever; the feeling became that there was nothing but good fortune keeping the ice from breaking beneath you, and increasingly not even that. And as the rest of the world kept telling us, a repetition that resonated more and more as our own system broke down, Covid was apparently over.

5: Quarantine On The Edge Of Forever

Typically I missed the great breaking of the ice entirely that resulted only a short while after my October lockdown. I was in Hong Kong, getting married. But even as I left the storm clouds were gathering; large parts of Guangzhou were in lockdown and case numbers were going up regardless. At the border a stark moment was being shepherded through customs by impatient, surly Big Whites, who had long since lost the noble propaganda sheen of 2021 and now only served to inspire discomfort wherever you saw them, and arriving on the Hong Kong side, where staff only wore facemasks and didn’t seem half as pissed off. I was in Hong Kong when the protests began, when Zero-Covid finally did the impossible and broadly united the disparate social classes of modern China for a brief moment. As it had intensified in scope and severity the policy had discriminated badly against the working class, who could least afford its economic toll, and pissed off the middle class, who chafed philosophically against its restrictions, and offended the wealthy, who wanted to see GDP numbers go up again like in the good old days. By November the sprawling, enormous, increasingly ineffectual monster that had grown up from the modest test and trace network of April 2020, lost and confused in the face of a virus that it could no longer tame, was finally upended. The party-state roused itself and killed off the medical-state with a speed far surpassing its long gestation. Zero-Covid was dead. The health codes, the quarantines, the testing – fine, Xi Jinping had said, see how you fucking like it then.

But not entirely. I left Hong Kong to return to the mainland in December, hoping to get back in time for Christmas with my wife – and there was one more element of the beast Zero-Covid had become in place, the inbound quarantine requirements. These days we’re hearing, as this policy nears its last redundant days, of inbound travellers straight-up refusing to comply and being allowed to ignore it, but when I went back I was focused only on the urgent resident permit-related issues that meant I had to get back sharpish, and I didn’t really think of trying to fight my way through the Big Whites all the way back to Guangzhou. So in December, from the 19th to the 24th, several weeks before its abolition and after the rest of Zero-Covid had ceased to exist, I did my first real quarantine. It was just as absurd as it sounds.

First off I was thinking when they said “hotel quarantine in Shenzhen” that this meant, you know, in Shenzhen, maybe near the border or something. Actually our quarantine hotel was high up in the mountains of Yantian district, in a theme park area; as a result the hotel and the surrounding environment had a bizarre pseudo-Alpine architectural style, contrasted with an enormous Buddhist statue made of gold upon a nearby mountaintop visible from my hotel room. We were driven there in a coach straight from the border checkpoint, met by a team of Big Whites who sprayed our luggage with way too much disinfectant, took our passports and ID cards, and then escorted us down a camera-lined corridor to our room. The room wasn’t bad – nice big bed, lots of space, great view of the swimming pool outside, clogged with algae from maybe years of disuse, a view that put me in mind of something eerily like the scene in a post-apocalyptic movie where the protagonists squat in an old world building for a rest from the zombies or whatever. Meals were provided thrice a day, and had to be paid for (so did the hotel), and once a day a Big White would come and give my wife and I a Covid test (separately, obviously). It wasn’t so bad, actually. I played a lot of old video games and watched a James Bond movie.

But the whole thing felt so bizarre, maybe in a way emblematic of the exercise in formalism Omicron had rendered Zero-Covid even before it had officially rolled up – here we were doing all of this very strict quarantine business, in a hotel sprayed so often with disinfectant you could smell it through the hotel door, while outside in Shenzhen the entire rest of this epidemic prevention and control apparatus had already ceased to exist. The pinnacle of this was when we had to arrange the second part of our quarantine, as formally the regimen was five days hotel quarantine and three days at home – we called our community, as required, to ask them if they could take us, and they said they didn’t know and that they would check. We received no reply, and on the sixth day took a taxi back to Guangzhou and to our community, where we promptly did not do three days home quarantine and were never asked about it.

Before that those five days passed like something from a dream. It was not even then an attitude of total despair and authoritarian indifference that pervaded – while the Big Whites were tired and sometimes a little short with people, for the most part nobody was trying to escape or whinging in the group chat about a need for freedom, and since at that time no one knew when the quarantine requirements would be abolished everyone seemed to have accepted, as if humouring the state apparatus one last time, that this ridiculous ritual that none of us in the hotel, from guests to health workers, had any say in, might as well be honoured with the pretence of amiability. But it was all over really. An image I remember from the morning of our release, when we were waiting for a taxi to take us back to Guangzhou so we could go get Covid with everyone else – a lone Big White waiting outside of the coach that would deliver those who needed to go there to Shenzhen Railway Station, milling about there on this high mountain road outside a resort hotel, everyone else masked but as normal. He was the last Big White I saw outside of a glimpse, a week ago, at a busy Guangzhou hospital, where the People’s War sort of goes on.

The sense of solidarity that enabled that People’s War is long gone. “I see no more parties before me; only Germans,” Kaiser Wilhelm proclaimed in 1914 at the outbreak of World War One, and Zero-Covid’s pandemic success created a similar kind of Burgfrieden that papered over the differences in an atomised society; in the end, Zero-Covid’s failure has only stretched those differences further apart. Its already unequal distribution of the burdens of pandemic control to local volunteers and low-paid workers, as well its unequal distribution of the benefits towards rural areas and older people, have left in its wake vicious partitions of belief in its correctness or incorrectness, when it should have ended or if it should have ended at all, and whose fault the current Covid tsunami exactly is…and contained with and underlying these debates is the wider political polarisation of the entire Xi Jinping era, of the entire Communist Party project and the Chinese revolution behind it. And complicating matters too is the intertwining of domestic political debate on the last three years, the sorting out of grudges and settling of accounts and healing of wounds that goes on whenever the Party leads the Chinese people into another fine mess, with the international debate on how exactly Covid should have been dealt with. The meaning of Zero-Covid and its rise and fall is not just something with Chinese consequences but human consequences, with implications for the whole of the species. Specifically, implications for the disasters of the future.

Conclusion: Democracies Are Better At Fighting Outbreaks?

In 2022, another major development in western coverage of China’s Zero-Covid policy began, although it wasn’t very noticeable at the time. Before Shanghai but during the dysfunctional lockdowns of Xi’an and Jiangxi, western press began to refer to “Xi Jinping’s Zero-Covid”, a phrase and idea that increased in prominence all the way through the Shanghai lockdown until it became at some point the standard; “Xi Jinping’s Covid Zero is Failing”, Bloomberg told us, while the Financial Times talked of the “Zero-Covid pride of China’s ‘big leader’ Xi”, The New York Times by September was reporting that “China’s Public Puts on a show of Zero-Covid for an Audience of One”. “Zero Covid’s Failure is Xi Jinping’s Failure”, The Atlantic said in December, and this is it seems the narrative that has been agreed upon by general consensus: to quote the Guardian editorial staff, whose usual reliance on lazy cliches is characteristic and useful: “Xi previously linked his personal prestige to draconian Covid-zero policies, vowing to stick with the harsh strictures as he cemented his personal authority”. Zero-Covid, in other words, was a vanity project that flew in the face of science and reason, a Great Leap Forward for the 21st Century, that after (small, grumbling voice) okay some initial success kept on for far too long, a draconian – they love this word – project that froze the country in authoritarian terror for three years until popular unrest forced the government to retire it.

I’m no expert in public health, politics, or anything really, but unlike a lot of the people who wrote these kind of things I have as mentioned lived here for the duration. So let us look at the first assumption of this narrative: that it was Xi Jinping’s Zero-Covid, that he was so invested in it that it was his personal love for epidemic prevention and control that kept it going. I’ve seen no real evidence that this was the case; boilerplate rhetoric in the press about “we must unswervingly uphold the Zero-Covid policy”, or standard headlines in People’s Daily about “Xi Jinping leads epidemic fight” is the closest you’ll get to anything proving that Xi loved Zero-Covid so much that he forced it upon the country as Mao did with the Great Leap Forward. There is also plenty of gossip about this, mind, but gossip is only ever gossip. Xi has his personal interests, I’m sure: the Belt and Road, silly red history events, fighting corruption. I don’t really believe Zero-Covid was ever his pet project to the extent depicted in these western reports. I don’t know for certain, but then neither really do the people who wrote so surely that it was.

What about the second part of this narrative, that contained within the word ‘draconian’? As said, I’ve been extremely lucky and avoided anything draconian in these three years – I don’t think it would be fair to deny, based on my limited experience, the obvious injustices, cruelties and overblown restrictions we’ve witnessed from Wuhan to Xi’an to Shanghai and beyond. This is the Communist Party’s modus operandi – it has never not overreached, done too much, overlooked the little in favour of the large. However, what my experience has shown me is that Zero-Covid did not exist as a static entity for the past three years either. Common western images of Zero-Covid resort to welded doors, armies of Big Whites, mass testing and titanic lockdowns – that these images are plucked from Wuhan in 2020 or the Omicron phase in 2022 obscures that from mid-2020 to about late 2021 Zero-Covid did not work this way, and not only was in daily life minimally intrusive but also depended, from the community volunteers who ran its systems to ordinary citizens who complied, on a general acceptance of  – even a level of public support for – its measures. Quite frankly a Zero-Covid that had been at Omicron-level intensity for all of the pandemic would never have worked, and this explains why blinkered observers who see it from afar assume an enormous level of repression and coercion, unseen to us, had to have been involved. But if this enormous level of repression had been present for all the last three years I somehow must have missed it, and either my luck is so good I’m basically a Good Soldier Svjek kind of idiot savant or it simply didn’t exist for the most part.

Of course, a considerable amount of repression and coercion were part of Zero-Covid from the start, in Wuhan and other outbreak hotspots and then as the virus worsened increasingly so across the country, leading to the dismal outcome of December 2022. The key phrase however is ‘part of’. Xi’s declaration of a People’s War in 2020 is often taken as evidence of communist dogmatism or Maoist hubris, but in fact the public’s consent was vital to the ramshackle Zero-Covid state’s initial successes and didn’t wane until deep into the 2022 Omicron wave, and by the fierce arguments unfolding in China now still has not entirely died off. In 2021 especially, before things soured, many people were proud of Zero-Covid, and remain so. Xi’s Party has always been caught in an awkward place between the alienating, mistrustful and distant politics of its predecessors and its attempted recognition of the importance of political support and public consensus, and Zero-Covid’s mixture of technocratic top-down management and its dependence, in the last resort, on co-operation between volunteers and citizens, reflects this. When that co-operation vanished in late 2022, with protests and riots facing the Big Whites instead of queues of accepting citizens, the policy became unworkable – or at least, it had been rendered unworkable except by brute force applied wholesale across the country, which would have accomplished nothing. Ironically it is this that has led to the end of Zero-Covid – the Chinese state’s unwillingness to use the naked force it is often accused of depending upon. The cost of this unwillingness to resort to violence will paradoxically be enormous, but then so would the cost of the violence itself.

The last arrow aimed at China regarding Zero-Covid is related to this cost – that China, by “clinging” to Zero-Covid for so long, has squandered time it could have used to prepare for opening and therefore made things far worse for its citizens – we’re even seeing this painted now, quite hypocritically, as a sign of the weakness and incompetence of the Chinese state, as it lets people die for no reason other than because saving them is too much work (as if we would ever!). But in this charge our critics of China reveal their intent by accident. Regardless of whether or not China did prepare enough – I would argue that to some extent it was caught in a bind where the resources required just to maintain Zero-Covid, by 2022, could not be diverted to preparations for opening or else the Omicron outbreaks would have overwhelmed the country anyway – we must question the premise of the accusation. In The Atlantic Michael “Xi-Jinping-Should-Watch-Hamilton” Schuman charges that “If anything, zero COVID bought the leadership time to gird the nation for the inevitable epidemic. Xi squandered it.”

Inevitable epidemic?

In February of 2020, a hundred years ago, that same magazine The Atlantic published a piece entitled “Democracies Are Better At Fighting Outbreaks.” This was before Covid hit the US and UK, before it shredded health systems worldwide, back when it was simply called by the worst people in the world ‘the China virus’. We now know that this premise – that “China’s firm handling of the COVID-19 outbreak looks like another proof point for authoritarianism…yet good public-health practice…requires transparency, public trust, and collaboration—habits of mind that allow free societies to better respond to pandemics.” –  was absurd. But it speaks to how from the beginning of the pandemic, before China got onto its propaganda campaigns about how Zero-Covid proved the superiority of socialism, the western perspective was that Covid in general proved the weakness of China’s system, how the mandate of heaven was threatened, and how we would basically be fine where the Chinese had lied, covered up and proven incompetent.

And the world saw how that went. But Zero-Covid’s relative success didn’t stop this narrative; first came the speculation that China had simply lied about its Covid numbers, and then that Delta would break it apart, then that while China’s system had worked to contain Covid the cost of this was too high and the hyper-authoritarianism of Zero-Covid (which again was never quite real) was in fact worse than the virus; and then it evolved into a narrative whereby, instead of the disastrous policy failure, government-discrediting fuck-up Covid had become in the US and UK especially, actually Covid was inevitable, and China far from defeating it had only put off a reckoning that it needed to prepare for, as the whole point of doing any kind of Covid control – as seen in Taiwan, Australia, Hong Kong, etc. – was simply to get ready to ‘open’ again. So you see we, by bravely dying en masse in 2020 and 2021, far from losing to authoritarianism had actually beaten it to the punch, getting the disaster over with quickly so things could – as they did after the 2008 financial crisis, remember? – go back to normal.

By this metric of ours, China looks to have fucked up bad. But did the Chinese state and people see it this way? The narrative that Covid involved some kind of attempt at lockdown/mitigation then inevitably when this didn’t work had to bear a large number of deaths, the ‘exit wave’, as the pandemic ended without a victory over the virus – this framing was not something that happened naturally, but was a result of pandemic failures in the west that demanded we get over it, because we could not defeat it, then thusly meant the whole world was obliged to get over it as well, because it was and remains our damn planet. This is the ideology of neoliberal capitalism – you simply get over things, whether market collapse, pandemic, or huge and dreadful economic and social crises, because the gutting of all arms of the state except that of repression and the draining of all political will except for tepid games of management means that your government and society no longer posses any capacity for dealing with problems in any real sense. The Covid-19 pandemic was a test for all of mankind, and we failed – but to be more particular capitalism failed, to either contain the pandemic or look out for its victims. And in our intertwined world devoid of alternatives it was so decided that this meant we all had to fail.

Did socialism with Chinese characteristics bravely defy this trend? Not entirely. Zero-Covid was a hybrid response borne of a hybrid system, that still unfairly affected the most disadvantaged in Chinese society and still ultimately prioritised profits and capital over people. But the Chinese system cannot – indeed, no matter how much it tries – shake off its basic Marxist DNA, which impels it to try to conquer the world, to defeat the things that neoliberalism declares as natural laws. Where we shrugged, China, for a combination of reasons both political and historical, foolishly tried to save lives, and we went through a whole range of responses witnessing this play out – first disbelief at the scale of the effort, then horror at its apparent success, and now finally a smug satisfaction at the fact that it seems even the communists weren’t able to defy gravity. We hope next time they’ll learn their lesson and simply give up like the rest of us; lie flat from day one instead of trying.

None of what has happened since 2020 bodes well for the next disaster, the next pandemic, the next great war. We are exhausted, indifferent, divided. The tragedy of Zero-Covid is not that it didn’t save lives (it did), not that it hurt people for no good reason (it also did), but that one country, no matter how motivated, cannot defeat a planetary-level disaster event by itself. In this case the country that tried was reduced to the ineffectual, sprawling, mess of late 2022 not because Xi Jinping just really liked it or because you see only authoritarian countries do these kind of things, but simply because its response to the disaster was never supposed to last for three years and it only did because the Chinese were trying in their broad-strokes, hard-nosed greater-good way to do the right thing even when everyone else gave up. And now we’re laughing at them for even doing so, while as ever hoping enough people suffer that the annoying Communist Party that attempted this either goes away or at least returns to 2000s neoliberal indifference to its people, so that when that next crisis does hit nobody will embarrass us by attempting to do anything about it.

Wherever we go from here, whatever happens next, I hope people can try to remember this; that while Zero-Covid has ultimately proven to be a tragedy, a tragedy requires not just misery but hope, that the good was intermingled with the bad. And that in coming to terms with the manifold failures of the pandemic worldwide, unaccountable as those responsible seem to be, that we can remember that it perhaps didn’t have to turn out how it did. In China the common phrase “add oil” came up a lot during Covid, meaning to keep on going, to put more fuel in your tank, not to give up. We said this about Wuhan, about Xi’an, about Shanghai – we asked in turn everywhere struck with the virus to add oil. I guess now I’m saying this again. As China staggers into the post-pandemic world, catching up with everyone else, I’ll ask everyone to add oil for a different reason – don’t stop being mad. Don’t ever forget what happened. Don’t stop being mad about the gravity they imposed upon us, that forced us all to live with it, that killed so many and ruined so much simply because they didn’t feel like doing any better and poured scorn upon those who did. With the end of Zero-Covid that nebulous thing called “the pandemic”, I guess, is finally over.

The fire next time will be somewhere else.


4 thoughts on “Add Oil! – The Tragedy of Zero-Covid

Add yours

  1. Marvelous story. Many thanks.
    One niggle: “Zero-Covid has ultimately proven to be a tragedy”. Dynamic Zero Covid saved 4 million lives while growing the economy four times faster than America’s.
    Right now, Covid deaths in China are running around 2 per day.
    Where’s the tragedy?


  2. Reading the article made me realize that I never really read about any first hand accounts about what living in China was like outside the 1 sentence “quotes” I’d read in a 3rd person WSJ piece. Same goes for what life is actually like in China writ large


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