Shanghai’s Last Generation
The crisis caused by an aggressive zero-Covid policy has shaken faith in the technocratic regime.
By Chang Che
Until 2022, Shanghai was called “the enchanted city.” It was a land of Gucci bags and French wine and weekend jogs along the Bund. It was a land of restless nights spent in the company of eclectic strangers. It was a land of coffee and convenience, of cloud-kissing skylines and flash-delivery bubble tea. There is an old cliché that the Shanghainese are an especially proud bunch, but it’s easy to see why: in a country with a xenophobic past and a revanchist nationalism, the cosmopolitan pleasures of the city bordered on the magical.
It was this pride that broke the magic spell. In March, when the Omicron variant penetrated China’s iron walls, other cities such as Shenzhen and Changchun locked down under a policy known as “dynamic zero-Covid,” which seeks to snuff out all virus transmissions. When cases began to rise in Shanghai, however, officials hesitated, believing China’s main financial hub too vital for a wholesale closure. They chose a retail approach, shuttering neighborhoods one by one as cases emerged. But by the end of March, it was clear the improvised plan had failed. As cases spilled into neighboring provinces, Beijing authorities took matters into their own hands. They ousted Shanghai’s more outspoken officials the way nature sent Icarus—wax-winged and recalcitrant—tumbling back to earth.
Twenty-five million residents—over twice the population of Greece—have paid the price ever since. For nearly two months, the city has been a ghost town. Shop front doors are bolted shut, and windows are strewn with black tarp. Sidewalks are hemmed by white tape, and neighborhood doors are patrolled by security guards. For an older generation who had witnessed the excesses of the Cultural Revolution, this was all too familiar. Food had to be rationed. Door-knocks became the stuff of nightmares. The Red Guards had returned—this time adorning white.
The playbook for China’s pandemic prevention was set in Wuhan two years ago, when the virus was still a mystery. It involved a suite of well-known players including frontline workers (medical personnel and police officers); the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, which processes the PCR tests; and the elusive district-level and neighborhood committees, the party cadres who oversee them all. Since the initial fumbles in December 2019, when authorities withheld critical information about the virus in its early weeks, China’s army of zero-Covid handlers acted with a startling efficiency that stamped out the virus for two years from shopping malls in Guangzhou to hotels in Chengdu. For many Chinese, this was an especially proud moment, for it seemed to accentuate the China model’s superiority under the newly recognized Covid-death metric.
The Shanghai crisis shattered this illusion. The immune system that once purported to safeguard its citizens’ wellbeing was, in fact, just political insurance. Xi Jinping plans to assume an unprecedented third term at the Party Congress this October, which has made him all the more vulnerable to jockeying from political rivals. A sudden jerk in policy was too risky in this volatile climate, so the citizens paid the price.
During the lockdowns, netizens on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, joked that the state no longer regarded non-Covid deaths as deaths. After two years of staking its legitimacy on its pandemic prevention record, the party was ready to go to any extreme to keep its techno-triumphalist narrative intact. What happened in Shanghai was like an auto-immune disease: death by Covid was prevented at the price of tremendous self-harm. “In Wuhan, it was fear of the virus and the authorities,” one Shanghai bookseller told me. “In Shanghai, there was no fear of the virus, just the authorities.”
Two Faces of Lenin
Many in the international community, including the World Health Organization, have now come out against China’s zero-Covid policy. They argue that as vaccines become more readily available and the virus becomes less lethal and more transmissible, China’s old pandemic toolbox of isolation, lockdowns, and mass testing needs an update. (The comments by the WHO chief were censored on China’s web, further confirming that, in China, narratives matter more than reality.)
The Shanghai crisis has yet to convince many Chinese to denounce zero-Covid outright, however. The immune system did overreact in Shanghai, they say, but that’s a problem of implementation, not policy. They point to Shenzhen, which locked down in March and resumed a week later, as an example of the policy done right. The alternative to lockdowns would be to let the virus rip, which a recent study in Nature estimated would cost the country 1.5 million lives. That is too big a price.
But the policy debate obscures what really went wrong in Shanghai. What Shanghai residents experienced was not, first and foremost, a technocratic failure; it was a political one. Food shortages, separated families, pet exterminations: these were not the behaviors of an efficient technocracy; they were the fits of a deeply paranoid party-state. 2022 was a modern stress test for the party, and it failed miserably. The party’s true instinct reared its ugly head, its layers of modern concealer washed away by a viral storm.
The Communist Party remains, to this day, a Leninist party—what the Boston University sinologist Joseph Fewsmith calls a “hierarchical, mobilizational, and task-oriented party.” Leaders set directives, and cadres in quasi-military rigor move heaven and earth to achieve them. Once a goal is set, however, it is very hard to change course. Deng Xiaoping once said that the greatest advantage of the Chinese system was the ability to “concentrate power to do big things.” Paradoxically, it is also its greatest weakness. The Shanghai crisis could have been averted had the system kept its sights on the small things.
Throughout China’s turbulent history, campaigns have been the moments when people are at their most vulnerable, for they become supplanted by a supposedly higher cause. They become means rather than ends. In Shanghai, the Communist Party administered PCR tests to 25 million people in a single morning, yet many of those people did not eat. From the Great Famine to the Cultural Revolution, the Communist Party has always had a tendency for self-sabotage, to spin itself out of control. Living through the Shanghai lockdowns, I felt this acutely.
The Silent Tiananmen
An ocean of betrayal and distrust has emerged following the Shanghai lockdowns, much as it did in June 1989. Like the students in Beijing, Shanghai’s youth are ready to flee. In early April, searches for “emigration” quadrupled on Weibo. A new trending hashtag related to fleeing the country—runxue, meaning “run philosophy”—proliferated among youths. (The word “run” was later wiped from Weibo search results.)
It is only for circumstantial reasons that Shanghai has not had the same moral outrage and resonance as Tiananmen. Both involved deaths by deliberate human action, a complete disaffection of the youths, and the decimation of collective action. The difference is that the latter occurred in a public square, its events and aftermath witnessed by foreign journalists. Shanghai occurred in the confines of the home with no journalists present. Now, with high-tech surveillance and a powerful censorship apparatus, collective actions can be nipped in the bud, ensuring that tragedies of unfathomable scale occur in deliberate obscurity. In recent weeks, Shanghai residents began to tally a list of deaths due to denied medical treatment, among other reasons. (The list now counts over 200 people, quadruple the official Covid-death count.) But censors have ensured that it will not be widely shared. We will never know the true number.
Shanghai may be the denouement of an era in which China was an alluring destination for foreign businessmen and dreamers. Like Hong Kong, the city is now part and parcel of an increasingly unrecognizable country. For young Chinese without the privilege to escape, a new form of resistance has taken hold, born out of cynicism toward the state and diminishing future prospects. It is captured in the buzzword bailan, which began circulating across the Chinese internet in April as youths across forty-five cities were confined to their homes. Bailan is a verb that means “to tank” or “to quit life,” embracing rather than resisting an ever-bleaker future.
In a country where the party constantly demands something of its youth—to have more kids, to go to engineering school, to stop playing games—the ascetic life is a form of resistance. Three weeks ago, a young couple was confronted by police officers after refusing to go to a quarantine facility. When one officer threatened them with a penalty that he warned would “last for three generations,” the young man remained unperturbed. He slammed the door, but not before firing off the defiant slogan of the post-lockdown age: “We will be the last generation.”
Chang Che is a non-fiction writer covering Chinese politics and society. His writing has appeared in The New Yorker, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, and others. He is an editor at SupChina.