Shanghai’s Lockdown

A ChinaFile Conversation

In late March, China started its largest lockdown in more than two years, with most of Shanghai’s 26 million residents confined to their homes in an effort to battle the rapid spread of Omicron. As of mid-April, 45 cities across the country were under some kind of lockdown. Though China’s overall vaccination rate is around 88 percent, just 80 percent of those over 60 had been fully vaccinated as of early April. Only 55 percent had received boosters. With new research showing significant leaps in efficacy of Sinovac among the elderly after a third dose, the country has been ramping up its vaccination efforts. In the meantime, it is clear the hard lockdowns have come with costs. Online, Shanghai netizens have been sharing lockdown horror stories amid a rare showing of widespread public dissent. In agricultural areas, the lockdowns have raised concerns that key crops will go unharvested. In megacities like Shanghai, lockdowns have underscored vast inequality and the unequal distribution of government services—particularly for migrant workers. How sustainable are current government approaches to the latest wave of infections, and where are they likely to lead? —The Editors


Clear signs of public discontent have appeared both in person and online in China’s social media sphere since the start of the Shanghai lockdown. Videos capturing these scenes of dissent have circulated online, including images of Shanghai residents kicking down barriers erected in front of residential buildings, videos of people confronting police and quarantine enforcers, and a viral video known as “Voices of April” (“四月之声”) capturing sentiments of helplessness and anger have flooded Chinese social media, despite the efforts of China’s censors to remove it.

This outpouring of dissent has led to reports predicting a coming “crisis” for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and Xi Jinping. However, there is little reason to believe that the unrest in Shanghai will lead to a crisis for the central government.

First, there is a tendency among Western observers to assume that the target of protests is the central government. However, protests like these have occurred throughout the Party-state’s existence. Sometimes they do rise to the level of demands for substantial changes, but the vast majority of protests aim to secure immediate objectives. In Shanghai, the targets of criticism are perceived incompetence and corruption at the local level, and concrete issues like the scarcity of food and other key goods. Though these protests are larger in scale, their grievances are similarly specific and their aims limited.

China’s internal security apparatus is practiced at containing social unrest. Protests like this are not rare in China; local protests addressing environmental issues or in response to public safety incidents occur with relative frequency. Local officials have a range of options available to address even widespread dissent, and often deploy them together—from crushing demonstrations and arresting protest leaders, to hiring local thugs to rough up protesters, to censoring online discussions, to allowing citizens to vent their frustrations online in a controlled manner, to actually addressing core concerns of protesters.

Third, protest events can in some cases serve to strengthen the regime. As mentioned above, the state learns from incidents of social unrest. Protests in authoritarian regimes can actually be helpful in making society legible—that is, letting the regime know where points of contention are and how to address them to prevent collective mobilization. In addition, the central government has an easy scapegoat in blaming local officials for policy failures. To mollify angry citizens, the Chinese state commonly deploys the tactic of removing local officials, giving the CCP the added boost of being seen as responsive to citizens’ concerns.

China will likely continue to adopt a conservative approach to COVID, as leaders will be highly risk-averse in the runup to China’s 20th National Party Congress. The more likely outcome of these protests is that some local-level officials may be replaced in the coming weeks, and the state will learn from citizen responses to the lockdown. In sum, we should not expect any major crises of legitimacy to come from the unrest in Shanghai.

During the Wuhan lockdown in 2020, personal diaries shared on social media were valuable sources of information about what was happening on the ground. Although not as many diaries have been posted during the ongoing Shanghai lockdown, those that have appeared still offer rare glimpses into the plight of Shanghai residents, as well as insights about possible ways to improve the management of lockdowns.

In an entry posted on April 9, 2022, a diarist complained about the residential committee in his neighborhood. Grassroots residential committees had played an essential role in delivering services to locked-in residents in Wuhan. How about Shanghai? In his neighborhood at least, the diarist reported, the residential committee had basically given up providing services and was only ordering residents to test twice in one day. The diarist also complained that many families had difficulties shopping for groceries or had to buy food at high prices via online group-buying, even as vegetables and meat donated to Shanghai by other cities spoiled because they were not efficiently distributed or stored.

Another diarist enumerated similar cases of mismanagement in an entry dated April 8. The night before, at 12:30 a.m., he had already gone to bed when a staff member from his residential committee called to inform him that his parents had tested positive and a bus would arrive at 2:00 or 3:00 a.m. to take them all into quarantine. Asked why they had to do this so late at night, the person on the phone said they themselves had only just been notified of the test results. The angry diarist decided to ignore the request and returned to bed. The next morning, when the residential committee called to check whether the COVID management authorities had been in touch with him, the diarist realized that those who were managing the lockdown did not even communicate effectively among themselves.

The diarist did share a story of success, however. One of the challenges of asking residents to frequently take PCR tests is long lines. If not managed properly, these occasions may become points of exposure. In one case, however, a couple in a high-rise building with only one working elevator designed a simple but efficient plan such that all residents in the building were tested in just one and a half hours.

The experiences of the two diarists show that the top-down, one-size-fits-all policies of COVID control and prevention in China do not always work, certainly not across the board. Why? Because as often happens in bureaucracies, the process of policy implementation becomes a matter of formality and appearance—known as “formalism” (形式主义, xingshizhuyi) in Chinese discourse. The individuals in the bureaucratic system, like the residential committee staff who called the diarist at midnight to move his parents into quarantine, would rather blindly follow instructions than question the irrationality of the procedures. That is the source of the plight of the Shanghai lockdown. A more effective approach would have to be more creative and flexible. To avoid the curse of “formalism” in top-down governance, it would also need to rely more on citizens’ own resourcefulness and self-organizing.

Two months ago, you could not go 500 meters in this city without running into an oat milk latte or a trendy boutique. Two weeks ago, I traded a slab of pork with a neighbor for imported milk for my children. Shanghai’s extreme, and seemingly endless, lockdown has brought this vibrant city to a standstill.

The reality of daily life under this lockdown is surreal, and as anger and frustration rise, queries increase about an exit strategy. Shanghai is also not alone in its misery; in early April, 87 of China’s largest 100 cities had some form of lockdown or restrictions in place.

In March, Xi Jinping called for more effective measures to reduce the impact of COVID-19 on social and economic development as much as possible. Yet instead of looking to new measures to contain Omicron, China continues to utilize 2020 tools of intense lockdowns to control a 2022 variant of the virus which, although highly infectious, could be less severe and less deadly. This is because allowing a serious Omicron wave would be too risky for China.

Hong Kong’s and South Korea’s Omicron experiences suggest that immunity through vaccination is crucial. South Korea had a stronger vaccine rollout than Hong Kong, particularly among the elderly population. That difference, alongside the discrepancy in death rates, indicates the importance of vaccination to beating Omicron. This is a challenge for China, which focused on its overall vaccination rate. It stands at an impressive 88 percent. But only about half of people over 80 have been fully vaccinated. Less than a fifth have received a booster shot. Some 52 million people over the age of 60 have not received two jabs.

For now, it seems the Chinese government will maintain its zero-COVID approach to minimize deaths and ensure a stable political and economic environment before the 20th Party Congress this autumn. But the idea that the zero-COVID strategy sustains a stable political and economic environment is uncertain. The lockdowns are rocking China’s economy. And the censors can barely keep up with the expressions of frustration towards the government’s handling of the situation in Shanghai.

The extended lockdown may lead to a recession in Shanghai which will drag China’s growth, limiting real GDP growth by at least 0.4 percentage points. This will complicate China’s ability to achieve its ambitious 5.5 percent GDP growth target for 2022. Leaving aside the damage to local retail, manufacturing, and financial sectors, disruptions to manufacturing and transport are generating regional supply-chain disturbances and will contribute to global inflationary pressure. Business leaders are increasingly vocal about the impossibility of operating effectively in the on/off economy that has resulted from China’s continued adherence to zero-COVID.

How does China get out of this bind? In a recent piece in National Science Review, Wei-jie Guan and Nan-shan Zhong consider strategies for China’s reopening, focusing on vaccination, acceleration of R&D in medications, increased rapid antigen testing, more investigations of infectivity of imported cases, and piloting policy adjustment in certain locations.

Apart from daily PCR tests, those steps seem far removed from the lived experience of those of us locked in our homes. Beijing has determined that there is too much at stake to allow a serious Omicron wave in China or to shift its zero-COVID policy. But when Shanghai eventually emerges from this severe and clumsily managed lockdown, it is a question as to whether the residents of China’s most economically consequential city will continue to agree.

Two years ago, in early April, Wuhan reopened after 76 days of lockdown. Since then, China has largely succeeded in stamping out large-scale COVID outbreaks with non-pharmaceutical tools: face masks, organized testing, large quarantine sites, and lockdowns. For the most part, people have supported the restrictive response, which they see as allowing China to remain a relatively stable and peaceful place while other countries report record cases and deaths.

But in March, one city broke this trend.

Facing a new wave of Omicron outbreaks, China’s two economic hubs, Shanghai and Shenzhen, made different choices. On March 13, Shenzhen announced a citywide lockdown and three rounds of COVID testing after finding fewer than 100 cases. On March 15, Shanghai officials said there was no need for a citywide lockdown. Instead, authorities would carry out only targeted lockdowns of certain areas. The city reported over 200 cases. At that point, the fates of the two diverged. Shenzhen controlled the outbreak and reopened in two weeks. Shanghai began a full lockdown in late March after cases topped 4,000. Today, most of Shanghai remains in lockdown with no end in sight. The city’s overall cases in this outbreak have reached more than 500,000 and growing.

It’s unclear why Shanghai chose a different route at first in March. But the city’s experience has mobilized the rest of the country: As cases spread to other parts of China, regional officials are jumping to apply extreme measures. On April 8, Guangzhou organized citywide COVID tests after finding two cases. A few days later, the city closed elementary and middle schools and started to limit outbound travel. The city controlled the outbreak and started lifting control measures on April 22. Elsewhere, Beijing, Hebei, Anhui, Zhejiang, Jiangsu, and Fujian provinces are also clamping down on small outbreaks with full force.

Since early April, Shanghai’s cases have made up more than 90 percent of China’s overall case count. The city missed the best window to contain the outbreak quickly and now struggles to contain it despite millions living in a prolonged lockdown. Shanghai’s unique experience is unrelatable to other regions. The city also has long had a reputation for acting like it is superior in China, making other Chinese people unsympathetic to its woes. Since the outbreak, the city has received much hate on Weibo from its fellow countrymen. People have blamed Shanghai for spreading the virus, questioned the city’s competency, and ridiculed Shanghai’s prestige.

In Shanghai, the isolation has made many rethink the practicality of fighting a changing virus with an old set of tools. As of April 28, there have been more than 300 deaths among Shanghai's 500,000 cases. In Wuhan, by comparison, more than 2,500 died in 50,000 cases in the first outbreak two years ago. But Shanghai’s experience is unlikely to shift national policy.

As an April 13 People’s Daily op-ed put it:

In the short term, it is true that pandemic prevention and control affects one place’s local economy, society, and people’s lives. But for the country as a whole, preventing the spread of the epidemic will allow people to return to their normal life and work, and a more relaxed and stable environment for economic and social development.

In other words, China isn’t yet ready to change a proven national policy just because one city struggles to make it work. Will the policy change if more places face a similar struggle? We will see.