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China and Covid19

“Xi’an, What Are You Doing?!” – Lockdown Mismanagement Leaves Residents Angry and Scared

Quarantined Xi’an: “This outbreak is really putting the city’s management to the test.”

Manya Koetse

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On the 11th day of strict lockdown in the city of Xi’an, many residents are struggling with food shortages and meeting basic needs. Others are emphasizing the rays of light in dark times.

For many living in the city of Xi’an, the New Year did not start off bright and joyful, but dark and filled with anxiousness.

On December 22, more than 13 million residents were ordered to stay at home and a strict lockdown began after the city saw a new wave of Covid19 infections, recording 143 infections in the two weeks before since December 9th.

December 28 marked a record high of 175 new confirmed cases in a single day. By December 29th, the number of recorded infections reached 1,117, going up to 1,444 on January 1st and 1,573 on January 2nd.

As the city entered its tenth day under strict lockdown this weekend, Weibo saw an outpouring of anger and disbelief from sleepless netizens who expressed their shock over the way in which local authorities were managing the Covid19 outbreak and the lockdown itself.

With most offline and takeout stores being closed and residents not allowed the leave their compounds, getting food supplies and other essentials became a serious problem for many.

Residents were initially allowed to have one person in their household go out to buy groceries, but rules were later tightened, not allowing residents to leave at all except for Covid19 testing.

Although many households soon received government supplies, there were also communities where no food had been delivered yet and where online groceries were delayed. Some on Weibo complained that they had already been eating instant noodles for eight days straight, unable to get any vegetables.

These were some of the hashtags and taglines on Weibo surrounding incidents sparking outrage.

 

Food Shortages in Xi’an #西安买菜难#

The hashtag “Difficult to Buy Food in Xi’an” (#西安买菜难#) had received over 370 million clicks by Sunday, January 2nd.

Many people are sharing their stories of saving up what they have left at home, not eating vegetables or fruit for over a week, and expressing their fear of going hungry and not having enough formula to feed their babies. Some also write about not being able to get much-needed medicine for family members with medical conditions such as cancer or diabetes.

“I’m a student who is stranded in Xi’an,” one young woman wrote: “I’m lucky that I rented a room for a month so I have a place to stay, but I’m worried about whether or not there is enough food to eat! In this phase of developing the New Era of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics, there are still people who are worried about not being able to eat.” She later adds: “I just have two packs of noodles left, preparing to delay eating them as long as I can and will only eat them when I am most hungry.”

Other people also expressed concerns over not being able to get other essentials, such as sanitary napkins and diapers: “Where can I buy diapers for my baby? I can’t get them offline, I can’t get them online, but this is also a basic necessity!”

While people are crying out for help over not being able to get food, there are also many videos on Weibo showing how local anti-epidemic workers are distributing food throughout the city.

Hundreds of netizens posted photos of the vegetable boxes they received from the government, expressing gratitude over the food and the volunteers who brought it to them. While some are creative in making dolls from their received vegetables, others are making drawings of the vegetables they wish they had.

“I feel like I’m living in a parallel universe if I see the residents of Xi’an in the news,” one local Weibo user writes on January 2nd: “In Baqiao District (灞桥区) of Xi’an, the fact is that from the lockdown up to now, our neighborhood hasn’t seen a single grain of rice or vegetable from the government.”

People living in Shajing town (沙井村) also sent out messages online to share their struggles. One person posted a video showing a long line of people queuing up for steamed buns.

“The landlord here in Shajing town received two cabbages, two carrots, and two potatoes, but the tenants didn’t get anything,” one Weibo user from the area wrote.

 

Man Gets Beaten Up for Buying Steamed Buns #西安小伙买馒头被群殴#

A video showing how one Xi’an resident got beaten up by two community guards upon return to his compound after buying food went viral on social media this week.

The hashtag “Xi’an Guy Gets Beaten Up Buying Mantou [Steamed Buns]” (#西安小伙买馒头被群殴#) received over 230 million views on Weibo. Other hashtags related to the incident received 330 million and 90 million views respectively (#西安通报2名防疫人员殴打市民#, #警方通报西安2名防疫人员殴打市民#)

The incident happened on December 31st around noon in the Yanta District of Xi’an. Social media users who posted a video of the incident said the man had left the compound to buy some buns because he was hungry.

The man can be seen standing at the gates of the compound talking to the guards when one of them approaches him from behind and seemingly grabs his phone. Another guard then physically attacks the man, with two other community workers also joining in punching the man, his food getting scattered on the floor.

It was later reported that the guards apologized for their actions. Local police also sent out a statement that, in accordance with the law, the two guards who punched the man will be detained for seven days and were each given a 200 yuan fine.

The video angered many people for various reasons, with some also understanding why social tensions are rising in local communities where people are unsure of when they’ll get food while the guards are also put in a tough job during such a strict lockdown.

 

Sudden Quarantine of Mingde Bayingli Community #西安明德八英里小区#

Another hashtag attracting major attention on Chinese social media was one concerning the Mingde 8 Yingli community (明德八英里小区) in Yanta District, where dozens of residents received news that they would be quarantined away from their compound together in the night of January 1st due to new infections in their proximity.

Residents complained on Weibo and WeChat that they were unsure of where they were heading, that they were put in buses together for hours until being driven off to a remote guest house without proper supplies. Old people, small children, and pregnant women were among those being taken away for quarantine without allegedly being provided with the things they needed, and without any measures to protect them against the dangers of infection.

Others wondered what the point of the isolation was. After all, these residents were already staying inside their homes since the 20th of December, besides going out for Covid19 tests. What was the point of taking them away together?

Many commenters were moved to tears when they saw an image of an old man standing in line for the quarantine. The man, holding a walking stick, was seemingly all alone and did not seem to have luggage or food supplies with him. People worried about his wellbeing.

One WeChat article titled “Xi’an, Is This How You Control the Virus?” (“西安,这就是你的防疫管控?”) criticized the way in which the situation was handled, but it was soon taken offline.

Still, many others on Weibo also wrote things such as: “Xi’an, what are you doing?”, expressing disbelief that the city seemingly was not prepared for a lockdown like this even though it has been two years since the pandemic started.

On January 2nd, Chinese media reported that two local Xi’an officials, Wang Bin (王斌) and Cui Shiyue (崔诗越), were removed from their positions in order to “strengthen the epidemic prevention and control efforts.”

“It’s begun now,” some commenters posted, suggesting that local authorities are turning things around to improve the situation in the city’s districts.

There are also many netizens praising the efforts of anti-epidemic staff who are working around the clock to get food to the various communities.

One viral video showed a woman breaking down in tears as she told a local health worker that she was on her period, but that there was no way for her to get sanitary pads.

“They also can’t help it,” one person responded: “This outbreak is really putting the city’s management to the test.”

“I started my first day as a volunteer today,” one Weibo user wrote: “It was very tiring, but it is cool that I am doing what I want to do. I know things are not perfect. But we’re trying.”

One volunteer health worker from a local art troupe played the patriotic “My People, My Country” (我和我的祖国) on New Year’s Eve while residents were cheering from their windows. On Weibo, the same sentiment was shared by many: “Come on Xi’an! A big thank you to all the frontline workers in the fight against the epidemic.”

Meanwhile, the cries for help also continue. “I really understand the hard work of the [anti-epidemic] staff,” one Xi’an citizen writes: “But our family will soon run out of food. We live in a tiny neighborhood – please don’t forget about us.”

By Manya Koetse

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©2021 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

Manya Koetse is the founder and editor-in-chief of whatsonweibo.com. She is a writer, public speaker, and researcher (Sinologist, MPhil) on social trends, digital developments, and new media in an ever-changing China, with a focus on Chinese society, pop culture, and gender issues. She shares her love for hotpot on hotpotambassador.com. Contact at manya@whatsonweibo.com, or follow on Twitter.

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Backgrounder

“Guarding the Green Horse” – How China’s Health Code System Provided Solutions and Generated Problems

The Health Code system and the ‘Green Horse’ meme have become part of everyday life in a zero-Covid China.

Manya Koetse

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Since 2020, China’s Health Code apps have become utterly ingrained in everyday life as a pivotal tool in the country’s ongoing fight against Covid-19. What is the health code system, what are its implications, and why have so many Chinese netizens become obsessed with holding on to their ‘green horse’?

 

This is the “WE…WEI…WHAT?” column by Manya Koetse, forthcoming publication in German by Goethe Institut China, visit Yì Magazin here.

 

There is the Grass Mud Horse,1 the River Crab,2 and now another mythical animal is living in China’s social media jungle: the Green Horse. The Green Horse is a cute bright green horse-like animal, a treasured creature that will protect you during your travels and keep you safe from quarantines and lockdowns at a time of China’s zero-Covid policy. The Green Horse will watch over you, but in return, you have to do everything you can to defend it.

‘Green Horse’ in Chinese is 绿马 lǜmǎ, which sounds exactly the same as the word for ‘green code’ (绿码), referring to the green QR code in China’s Covid health apps, which have become a part of everyday life in China since 2020. In a social media environment where homophones and online puns are popular and ubiquitous, it did not take long for the ‘green code’ to turn into the ‘green horse.’

The Green Horse, image via Weibo.

China’s health code system was designed as a solution to resume work and daily life during the pandemic and is widely praised in the country as a pivotal tool in combating the spread of the virus. But it has also given rise to new problems and has triggered resistance against a new kind of digital governance.

 

A SHORT INTRODUCTION TO CHINA’S HEALTH CODE SYSTEM

 

In February of 2020, when China was in the midst of the fierce battle against the novel coronavirus, the country’s tech giants competed over who would be the first and the most efficient in providing digital solutions to aid the anti-epidemic fight.

Within eight weeks after the start of the initial Wuhan Covid outbreak, Alibaba (on Alipay) and Tencent (on WeChat) developed and introduced the ‘Health Code’ (jiànkāngmǎ 健康码), a system that gives individuals colored QR codes based on their exposure risk to Covid-19 and serves as an electronic ticket to enter and exit public spaces, restaurants, offices buildings, etc., and to travel from one area to another.

Scanning a green code (image via Tech Sina, 2020).

Hangzhou, Alibaba’s hometown, and Shenzhen, Tencent’s home base, were the first cities in China to introduce the Health Code in early February of 2020, and other cities soon followed in collaboration with either Tencent or Alipay. By late February, a nationwide health code system was first embedded in WeChat (Chen et al 2022, 619).

Now, people can receive their Covid-19 QR codes via ‘mini programs’ in Alipay or WeChat, or via other provincial government service apps. Apart from the personal health code apps, there is also the ‘Telecommunications Big Data Travel Card’ (通信大数据行程卡), better known as the ‘green arrow code,’ which tracks users’ travel history and is also available inside WeChat or can be downloaded as a standalone app. Its goal is to track if you’ve been to any medium or high-risk areas over the past 14 days.

The Green Arrow Code is used to track people’s travel history of past 14 days (Image via 人民视觉).

The health code system is not as centralized as you might expect it to be. Instead, it is fragmented and sometimes complicated. There are basically two kinds of Health Codes in China. One is the ‘Health Information Code’ (防疫健康信息码) provided by China’s national government service platform (link) which can also be used by those without mainland ID cards (including people from Hong Kong, Macao, and Taiwan).

The other kind of Health Code, which is the one that is most used across China, is the local version of the health code system provided by each province/municipality. There are at least 31 different regional health code applications, from Beijing’s ‘Health Kit’ (北京健康宝) to Shanghai’s ‘Suishenma’ (随申码), from Jiangsu’s ‘Sukang Code’ (苏康码) to Anhui’s ‘Ankang Code’ (安康码). There are sometimes also separate health code apps being used within one province (e.g. in Shenzhen both the local Shen-i-nin 深i您 app as well as the Yuekang Code 粤康码 are being used).

These local Covid health apps are developed by different provinces and cities, and they are not always compatible with each other. This means that those traveling to different provinces or municipalities need to go through the inconvenient process of applying for different local health code apps depending on where they go. Although one single centralized system has been proposed ever since 2020, the process to unify the system is not easy since the various apps have varying functions and are managed by different local government departments (JKSB 2022; Lai 2022). In early September of 2022, China’s National Health Commission announced that it was working with relevant departments to improve the interoperability and mutual recognition of health apps across the country.

Do you get a Green, Yellow, or Red QR code? That all depends on personal information, self-reported health status, Covid-19 test results, travel history, and more – the health code system operates by accessing numerous databases. The Green color means you’re safe (low-risk) and have free movement, the Yellow code (mid-risk) requires self-isolation and the Red color code is the most feared one: it means you either tested positive or are at high risk of infection. With a red code, you won’t have access to any public places and will have to go into mandatory quarantine. Once the quarantine is finished and you’ve consecutively tested negative, the code will switch back to green again.

Three color codes in the Health Code (image via Tech Sina, 2020).

By the end of 2020, around 900 million Chinese citizens were using Health Code apps and although there are no official records of the latest numbers, virtually anyone visiting or traveling anywhere within China will now use the health code system. Besides keeping records of your latest nucleic acid test results, the Health Code app also includes Covid vaccination records since 2021.

 

LEAVING THE ELDERLY BEHIND

 

Despite the efficiency of China’s health code system, it has not been without controversy. One major issue is that it basically forces Chinese citizens to have a smartphone and to download and properly use these apps. This creates a problem for younger children, those without access to smartphones, or those with lower levels of digital skills, including senior citizens.

Although the use of smartphones, the internet, and QR codes are widespread in China, where mobile payments are far more common than cash, more than 60% of Chinese aged 60 years and over still did not use the internet in June of 2020. In China’s ‘Zero-Covid’ era, it is becoming almost impossible for China’s digital illiterate to live a ‘normal’ life.

Chinese authorities have attempted to simplify things for Chinese seniors by making platforms more user-friendly and introducing alternative ways to enter venues, such as offline codes. But at a time when systems differ per region and some venues do not have the tools to check offline (paper) codes, many elderly still struggle (see Gu & Fan 2022).

“They did nucleic acid testing in my grandma’s community compound today,” one woman from Shanxi writes on Weibo: “There are many elderly people in my grandma’s area, and I saw that so many of them had no smartphones, just senior mobile phones, but now they have to swipe a code to make an appointment for testing. One grandpa asked a staff member what to do without a smartphone, they just said it would be better to bring your son or daughter to do it for you. But all results also are processed digitally, so there’s no way for them to see it, and it’s really not easy for them to go to public places.”

On Chinese social media, there are many stories showing the difficult situations that some senior residents are caught up in because they do not have a smartphone or do not know how to get a Health Code.

In August of 2022, there was one viral story about an elderly man from Shandong walking ten kilometers every day because he could not take the bus without a health app. There was also another story about a visually impaired Hengyang resident who was unable to set up the code and was barred from using public transport. In May, a 70-year-old man got stuck inside the Wuxi train station for three days because he had no smartphone and had to scan a code in order to leave.

In another video that went viral, an old man got on a bus in Shanghai but had a hard time using his mobile phone to do the ‘venue check-in’ (场所码). When the bus driver got impatient, the man eventually got off the bus, saying he felt bad about delaying the other passengers.

“Heartlessness is scarier than the epidemic,” some Weibo commenters wrote in response.

 

RED CODE: CONTROVERSIAL DIGITAL GOVERNANCE

 

Another problem that concerns netizens in this Health Code era is that the code could pose an infringement of privacy and could be abused to limit citizens’ freedom of movement for reasons that are unrelated to Covid-19. There are still unclarities surrounding the app, such as what kind of information is exactly being collected, who is authorized to access the data, and how the data is processed and stored (Zhang 2022, 2).

Some people complain on social media that they do not understand why their Health Code is changing colors: “After I did a Covid test the other day, my Health Code was green. The day after, I woke up to a yellow code and after I had done my nucleic acid test again, it was still yellow. On the third day, it turned green. In the afternoon it turned yellow again. On day four, it was green again. Besides doing tests, I’ve been at home all this time. I’m stupefied.”

One incident where people who came to the city of Zhengzhou to protest suddenly saw their Health Codes turn red sparked major outrage on Chinese social media in June.

Earlier this year, thousands of Chinese depositors struggled to recover their savings in light of a major banking scandal in Henan Province. When dozens of affected depositors traveled to the provincial capital of Zhengzhou in June of 2022 to demand their money back, they suddenly saw their Health Codes turn red. The red code was unexpected and strange, considering that there were no new reported Covid cases in their vicinity. Accompanying family members who made the exact same journey reportedly did not see their Health Codes change, raising suspicions that the duped depositors were specifically targeted and that their Health Codes were being manipulated.

“Who is in charge of changing the Health Code colors?” became a much-asked question on social media platform Weibo, with many blaming local Henan authorities for abusing their power and trying to stop rural protesters from raising their voices in Zhengzhou. Although Henan authorities claimed they did “not understand” what had happened, five local officials were later punished for their involvement in assigning red codes to bank depositors without authorization (Wu 2022).

The incident sparked more discussions on the legal and privacy risks surrounding the health code system. Although many people in China support the use of Health Code apps (also see Chen et al), there is also a fear that a lack of transparency and management could allow the health code system to turn into a surveillance tool used by the wrong people for the wrong reasons.

The influential media commentator Hu Xijin also gave his view on the matter, saying that Health Codes across the country should only be used for “pure epidemic prevention purposes.”

“The fact that Henan can make the health codes turn red of people who come to the city to protest says a lot about the power of the IT,” one Weibo tech blogger wrote. Another Weibo user wrote: “As ordinary people, we have voluntarily given up too much of our personal privacy and rights in order to cooperate with the epidemic prevention. The current abuse and misuse of health codes have caused serious infringement on the legal rights of citizens (..) The state should quickly incorporate health codes into a unified system and place it under strict management, and once the epidemic is over, the health code system should stop running immediately.”

 

A GREEN HORSE FUTURE?

 

But will the Health Code and the ‘Green Horse’ ever disappear from daily life in China? And if so, how would the collected data be handled? Although the pandemic era is not over yet (and the question remains what would qualify as ‘the end’), local Chinese governments and tech firms are already looking to see how the health code system could be implemented and how its uses could be expanded in a post-pandemic future (Chen et al 2022, 619).

Back in 2020, the China Healthcare platform (健康界) already published an article exploring the post-pandemic use of the health code system as a digital health passport and information system that could continue to play a significant role in medical care, social security, public transportation, and tourism.

On social media, some people worry that the health code system – and everything that comes with it – is here to stay indefinitely. One Henan-based blogger wrote: “In the future, I hope my son will visit my grave and tell me, ‘dad, now we no longer need our Health Code, nucleic tests or masks when we go to the malls and take trains or airplanes.'”

“If I would wake up tomorrow in a world without health codes, travel codes, Covid tests, lockdowns, wouldn’t that be great,” another person wrote on Weibo, another netizen adding: “My health code is normal. My nucleic acid test is normal. It’s just my mental state that has become abnormal.”

The fears of receiving a ‘Red Code’ are also palpable. Earlier in summer, videos showed people in Shanghai fleeing out of a local mall once they heard that someone in the building had received notice of an abnormal test result.  The same happened at a local IKEA store. Afraid of Health Codes turning red and getting locked in, people rushed to get out as soon as possible. Some even compared the scenes to a ‘zombie apocalypse.’

People fleeing from a local IKEA store after someone in the building got an abnormal test result.

Although there are serious concerns regarding the health code system, social media users also make light of it through the ‘Green Horse’ meme. The phrase “Bàozhù lǜmǎ” (抱住绿码/马) is often used on Chinese social media, a wordplay meant to mean both “Keep your code green” as well as “Hold on to your Green Horse.”

Selection of ‘Holding on to the Green Horse’ memes.

Following the trend, Wuhan set up a giant green horse at a public square in the city, which soon became a popular place for people to take selfies. The meme is also a profitable one for businesses. On Chinese e-commerce sites, you’ll find there are ‘Green Horse’ keychains, stickers, toys, mooncakes, and coffee mugs.

Green Horse merchandise on Taobao.

As cases of Covid surged again in Chengdu, Shenzhen, and elsewhere in late August and September, worries over ‘keeping the green code’ grew again among those living in affected regions. One local Weibo blogger wrote: “I just couldn’t sleep the past few days, I kept checking my green code and latest Covid test results. It makes me anxious.”

“I feel safest at home,” others write: “This is where I can guard my Green Horse.”

“I hope this epidemic will go away soon,” one netizen wrote: “I hope we can all have our Green Horse and just keep it.”

 

By Manya Koetse
Follow @whatsonweibo

 

1 Grass Mud Horse or Cǎonímǎ (草泥馬) is one of China’s social media ‘mythical creatures’ and an online meme. It is a word play on the vulgar Mandarin term càonǐmā (肏你媽), which literally means “f*** your m*m.”

2 River Crab is another ‘mythical creature’: Héxiè (河蟹) is literally ‘river crab’ but sounds the same as héxié (和谐),”to harmonize,” referring to online censorship.

 

References (other sources linked to inside the text)

Chen, Wenhong. Gejun Hang, and An Hu. 2022. “Red, Yellow, Green, or Golden: The Post-Pandemic Future of China’s Health Code Apps.” Information, Communication & Society 25 (5): 618-633.

China Healthcare 健康界. 2020. “国家卫健委推行”一码通”健康码未来不止于”通行.”” CN Healthcare, 21 December https://www.cn-healthcare.com/article/20201221/content-547951.html [Accessed 22 Aug, 2022].

Gu, Peng and Yiying Fan. 2022. “In ‘Zero-COVID’ China, the Elderly Are Becoming Ever More Marginalized.” Sixth Tone, 9 Aug https://www.sixthtone.com/news/1010908/in-zero-covid-china-the-elderly-are-becoming-ever-more-marginalized [Accessed 22 Aug, 2022].

JKSB 健康时报网 [Health Times]. 2022. “国家健康码和地方健康码区别何在?专家:国家平台更接近理想状态.” JKSB, August 27 http://www.jksb.com.cn/html/redian/2022/0827/177853.html [Accessed 1 Sep, 2022].

Lai, Xianjin. 2022. “Unified Health Code Can Bring More Convenience, Efficiency.” China Daily, April 6 https://global.chinadaily.com.cn/a/202204/06/WS624ccc73a310fd2b29e55269.html [Accessed 31 August].

Liang, Fan. 2020. “COVID-19 and Health code: How Digital Platforms Tackle the Pandemic in China.” Social Media + Society (Jul-Sep): 1-4.

Wu, Peiyue. 2022. “Zhengzhou Officials Punished Over Red Health Code Saga.” Sixth Tone, 23 June https://www.sixthtone.com/news/1010627/zhengzhou-officials-punished-over-red-health-code-saga- [Accessed 22 Aug, 2022].

Zhang, Xiaohan. 2022. “Decoding China’s COVID-19 Health Code Apps: The Legal Challenges.” Healthcare 10 (1479): 1-14.

 

Featured image by Ama for Yi Magazin.

This text was written for Goethe-Institut China under a CC-BY-NC-ND-4.0-DE license (Creative Commons) as part of a monthly column in collaboration with What’s On Weibo.

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China and Covid19

Weibo Discussions: What is the Way Forward for China’s Zero-Covid Policy?

Political commentator Hu Xijin about China’s zero-Covid Policy: ” This fight is bound to be like navigating a boat against the current.”

Manya Koetse

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Over the past few weeks, while various regions across China have been dealing with a surge in new Covid cases and ongoing local lockdowns, there have been more online discussions regarding the future of China’s zero-Covid policy.

Facing another local outbreak and lockdown, people in Shenzhen’s Shawei in the city’s Futian District clashed with local officers on September 26. People were chanting: “Lift the Covid lockdown!”

The well-known Chinese political commentator Hu Xijin (@胡锡进), former editor-in-chief of state tabloid Global Times, published a lengthy post on his Weibo account on Monday, focusing on the current discussions surrounding China’s Covid policies.

Hu Xijin

In his post, Hu explained the perspectives of people on both sides of the Covid debate, and why many people want China to ‘open up’ while there are also those who are still defending China’s prevention and control measures to contain the virus.

Hu also argued that more experts should come forward with suggestions and views based on science in order for the online discourse to focus more on science and rationality rather than letting the discussions be dominated by loud voices on social media.

 

This is a (loose) translation of the full text in Hu Xijin’s post (translation by What’s on Weibo):

 

“The epidemic has had an influence on all Chinese people, and it has affected the face of China’s current economic and social operations in all areas. Recently, however, there have been fewer reasonable discussions on epidemic prevention policies. Many experts have gone silent while the slogans thrown around on the internet are increasing, and they’re all opposing each other. This public opinion environment is evidently not constructive regarding China’s next steps in the fight against the epidemic, and it certainly doesn’t help to create a realistic response to the continuous changes in the epidemic.”

“I’m not an epidemic expert, but I hope to contribute by promoting rational discussions on epidemic prevention. Let me first go through the two main types of views right now of those calling for “liberalization” and those opposing it.”

“The view of the “liberalization” group: it has been proven that Omikron and its variants simply cannot be contained, and there is overwhelming evidence that these variants already have a lower mortality rate than influenza. Lockdowns in various areas, especially the long ones, severely restrict people’s freedom and are detrimental to physical and mental health. The constant “static management”* (静态管理) everywhere has severely impacted the economy and had led to business closures, unemployment, and depression. Long-term lockdowns and control have also led to China being more shut-off and isolated from the rest of the world. In short, they argue that China holding on to a policy of prevention and control along with the rest of the world is a choice that China should and must make.” [*a type of ‘lockdown’ that still allows some essential businesses and public services to stay open.]

“The view of opponents of “liberalization”: they argue that it is a fact that the epidemic is not over, and that there is no certainty that the virus will continue to weaken – there is still a possibility that the virus will become stronger again. The countries that “let go” [of Covid measures] were forced to do so. But if China opens up, all previous efforts might go to waste and we could face an immense wave of hundreds of thousands of deaths; it would create a serious strain on our healthcare and cause a humanitarian disaster. Although China is currently facing short-term difficulties, the past three years of the epidemic have shown that overall the economic costs of China’s epidemic prevention have been relatively low. We must persevere now, and when the time is ripe we won’t be too late to “liberalize” and, considering everything, another six months or so won’t really matter. It is also not necessarily true that the economy will jump back up once we open up. So many countries across the world have opened up but there are few where the economy is actually doing well. When there are viruses everywhere, there will be a lot of households with elderly people and young children that will stay away from public places. In most areas in China, on the other hand, they are going out without any worries, which supports consumption. They say that China is harming itself by isolating from the world, [but] China’s foreign trade has actually increased since the pandemic and not decreased. A part of foreign trade is experiencing temporary and specific challenges but that does not apply to the overall situation and the reality is that the world’s demand for China is growing.”

“It is worth noting that most of those opposing China ‘opening up’ generally also oppose the arbitrary implementation of “static management” and excessive epidemic prevention, arguing that the ‘one-size-fits-all’ kind of epidemic prevention is a manifestation of local officials in epidemic areas trying to protect official bureaucracy. “

“Overall, there is a political atmosphere surrounding the online discussions on epidemic prevention, and the viewpoints of the people whose voices are the loudest are highlighted. I think this is a bad trend, and we should stop it. I believe that experts should come forward more and publish their suggestions to bring the epidemic discussion back to the realm of science and reason. Even if we can’t completely do it, we should strive to do so.”

 

“Countries across the world have collectively lost the battle and have accepted the natural consequences of the Covid pandemic, including deaths and Long Covid. Only China is still fighting.”

 

“In order to advocate [China’s] “liberalization,” we must find reliable answers to some crucial questions. The death rate of Omicron is low, but the infection rate is high, so the overall death total is still not radically reduced – even in America every day a few hundred people are still dying because of it, – how can we solve this problem? When fever and severe cough is all around us, even if it’s not deadly, entire families might fear for the lives of the elderly and their children once they find themselves in such a situation, and everyone will rush to the hospital. How do we prevent our medical systems from becoming overwhelmed? And what’s actually going on regarding Long Covid? The UK has two million cases of Long Covid and the US has around four million cases, it is affecting the quality of life for many people, how do we see this problem? And in case we “open up,” how would it affect the number of people still coming to shopping malls, subway stations, restaurants, and cinemas? China is not like American and European societies, the public’s mental state is relatively fragile. We need experts to come up with credible predictions and measures that can be taken.”

“Those who oppose the easing of preventive and control measures should respond to these kinds of questions: how would we solve the constant ‘static management’ [lockdows] in some regions? How do we address the problems of the travel flow between regions not being smooth and the disruption of supply chains in production areas? Would it be possible for us to achieve, over time, a mature upgrade of the prevention and control system while avoiding widespread lockdowns and obstruction of domestic travel?”

“Omicron is a big problem for humanity, and the reality is that countries across the world have collectively lost the battle and have accepted the natural consequences of the Covid pandemic, including deaths and Long Covid. Only China is still fighting. But this fight is bound to be like navigating a boat against the current. We need to let the whole society grasp the difficulty of this battle, make them understand how hard it is for the country to make “and/and” [both economy and public health-related] strategic decisions to safeguard the interests of 1.4 billion people. There will not be an easy way to solve all the issues and eliminate all systematic problems. China can only constantly weigh in the pros and cons to find the way with the least relative disadvantages. I believe that if we talk things through, although there will always be complaints in the public opinion arena, everyone or at least the majority of people will eventually understand the good intentions and necessity of the country’s strategic decisions, and our society as a collective will continue to keep up with the state policies ahead.”

The post, which received over 55,000 likes, also got many responses.

One popular comment said: “I don’t oppose the epidemic prevention, I oppose how ‘one solution fits all’! As quickly as possible we should push for [local] Health Code apps to recognize each other and stop with making people isolate and stay home in low-risk areas.”

Some people appreciated Hu’s post and were glad that it explicitly stated some issues that are usually not mentioned in official discourse on China’s Covid battle. “Finally someone is admitting that the virus won’t go away,” one commenter said.

But there were also people who thought Hu Xijin was missing some points. One person responded: “The grievances of the people are so deep, yet no official has spoken out, do they think the voices of the people are not important at all?” Another person mentioned: “It’s not that the experts are silent; they are afraid to speak up.” Some asked: “Who has made them go silent?”

 

“Is our epidemic prevention really still about preventing the epidemic?”

 

Another Weibo user mentioned that it is not about control versus freedom in China’s Covid fight, but about excessive measures – not too long ago, news that authorities in Xiamen were also doing Covid tests on fish and crabs made its rounds on Weibo: “Isn’t excessive prevention the biggest waste of energy? They’ve opened up in foreign countries for so long, aren’t they the best example? Don’t you want to believe the people? Why are we still worried about Chinese people having a frail mental state? Let’s hurry up and stop this laughable excessive epidemic prevention, we’re all tired.”

“Is our epidemic prevention really still about preventing the epidemic?” others wondered.

There were many people who agreed with this, and one of the top comments said: “I don’t support opening up completely, but I oppose excessive epidemic control, and this is a view that is held by most Chinese.”

Online discussions on the future of China’s Covid policies first started flaring up during the Shanghai lockdown in April of this year, when people started posing questions on why people who barely show any Covid symptoms should still be quarantined at centralized quarantine locations, fearing cross-infection or re-infection due to the crowded and sometimes chaotic living conditions.

At the time, more Chinese officials and experts started emphasizing the importance of sticking to the “dynamic zero-COVID strategy” as the best way forward for China, meaning rapidly responding to new Covid cases, precise prevention measures, and controlling and extinguishing local outbreaks as fast as possible to avoid further spread of the virus and drastically reduce the number of people getting sick.

In order to “amplify authoritative voices” to weigh in on this kind of discussions, Weibo launched its Hongru Open Media Plan (#鸿儒-媒体开放计划#) earlier in 2022, using it as a platform to highlight ‘expert’ opinions.

China’s leading experts on Covid-19, including the renowned scientists Zhong Nanshan (钟南山), Zhang Wenhong (张文宏), and Li Lanjuan (李兰娟), have published and spoken up about the virus and the epidemic situation in China throughout the years.

In a recent interview, Chinese epidemiologist Li Lanjuan said that Covid-19 is a ‘Type B’ infectious disease that is currently managed as a ‘Type A’ infectious disease in China. Type A includes the plague and cholera, while infectious diseases classified as Type B are less severe and include bird flu, malaria, polio, and AIDS.

Li suggested that the management of Covid-19 would, in time, also shift to a ‘Type B’ management system and that Covid-19 will have less of an impact on people’s lives. A Weibo hashtag related to the topic was later taken offline.

Not long after, a hashtag titled ‘How Long Will ‘Dynamic Zero’ Go On?’ (#动态清零政策将持续多久#) was published on Weibo by China Youth Daily, referring to a press conference on September 7 where this question was asked by a foreign reporter. Although Chang Jile (常继乐), deputy director of the National Bureau of Disease Control and Prevention, did not give a concrete answer to the question, he emphasized that scientific research on Covid-19 is still ongoing and that China’s prevention and control measures are still “the most economical and the most effective.”

In the Weibo comment sections, one person wrote: “Still no answers. How long will this go on?”

Read more about Covid in China here.
Read more about Hu Xijin here.

By Manya Koetse 

Elements in the featured image by Fusion Medical Animation.

 

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