After about a week since Shanghai, China’s economic centre, went from semi-lockdown to “static management” (静态管理, a strict lockdown in which residents are not allowed to leave their homes), the outbreak continues to worsen.
As of 6 April, Shanghai recorded 311 new local confirmed or symptomatic cases and 16,766 asymptomatic cases. Since 1 March, over 94,000 people have tested positive in this latest outbreak in Shanghai.
Public outcry against Shanghai authorities
This is China's greatest pandemic containment challenge since the outbreak in Wuhan subsided more than two years ago. Various regions rushing to Shanghai's aid, the People's Liberation Army (PLA) being mobilised — these are scenes reminiscent of measures taken in Wuhan. In fact, the severity of the Shanghai outbreak may well exceed what was experienced in Wuhan.
With its epidemic defences breached, Shanghai is in a state of chaos and there is much public discontent. Horror stories of supply shortages, medical treatment denied to non-Covid emergency cases and chronic patients, and children separated from their parents, have sparked public outcry and landed the local government in the hot seat.
Among the many criticisms it has received, the Shanghai authorities are accused of playing with words to save face...
Among the many criticisms it has received, the Shanghai authorities are accused of playing with words to save face — initially denying lockdowns, but subsequently dividing the city into east and west of the Huangpu River to control the situation, and finally going into full “static management”. In contrast, Shenzhen — which also faced an outbreak around the same time as Shanghai — was decisive in implementing strict measures and quickly brought the outbreak under control.
Other comments said that several incidents prior to the current outbreak should have given the authories enough warning. Namely, the breach at the Huating Hotel, a designated quarantine centre for travellers from outside of China, and the scuffle that broke out among medical workers at the Shanghai Sixth People's Hospital. These may seem like isolated incidents, but the seeds of a larger catastrophe would have been sown then.
Shanghai was also accused of being "irresponsible" for failing to promptly control its people from leaving the city once the outbreak was detected, leading to the spread of the virus to surrounding provinces and cities.
...it was a shock to many when the medical system became overwhelmed and the situation on the ground turned to shambles.
While no one anticipated the speed of the outbreak, it was a shock to many when the medical system became overwhelmed and the situation on the ground turned to shambles. After all, Shanghai is the richest city in China, with the best medical resources and the most sophisticated governance system. Until the current outbreak, it was doing remarkably well in its anti-epidemic efforts.
Shanghai has indeed slipped up in handling this current wave of Covid-19. The authorities have also admitted that they did not understand the highly infectious and insidious nature of the Omicron variant well enough and were ill-prepared for the significant rise in infections. Furthermore, the necessary prevention and control measures were not in place and the local government was not thorough in ensuring that the residents in locked down areas had ample access to supplies.
In the first two months of this year alone, Shanghai has recorded 1,243 imported cases, equivalent to 80% of total imported cases in Shanghai for the whole of last year.
Shanghai the gateway to the outside world
Nonetheless, there are also objective reasons for the breach in Shanghai’s epidemic defences. Over the past two years of the pandemic, Shanghai has been China’s open gateway to the rest of the world, hence it is under greater pressure than any other Chinese city to prevent imported cases.
According to statistics from yicai.com, as of February this year, Shanghai’s Pudong International Airport has handled over 40% of all flights into China since the pandemic began. The Omicron variant has ramped up the pressure to prevent imported cases. In the first two months of this year alone, Shanghai has recorded 1,243 imported cases, equivalent to 80% of total imported cases in Shanghai for the whole of last year.
Shanghai has been trying to maintain its “precise outbreak containment measures”, and avoid locking down an area or conducting mass testing following localised outbreaks, in the hope of minimising the economic and social impacts of epidemic prevention as much as possible.
Shanghai is a financial powerhouse and home to 25 million people. While imposing a lockdown is the simplest yet most effective approach to minimise the risk of virus spread, the economic and social cost that Shanghai has to pay for implementing a “one-size-fits-all” measure is not comparable to those of ordinary cities. Hence, Shanghai was hesitant to adopt harsh epidemic prevention and control measures at the early stages of this wave of Covid-19 infections. Nonetheless, public opinion believes that this approach stems from Shanghai’s blind arrogance and carelessness.
Exploring sustainable pandemic controls
Objectively speaking, Shanghai’s efforts in balancing the “dynamic zero-Covid” strategy and minimising the economic and social impacts of epidemic prevention measures are evident. It is not exploring the feasibility of “living with the virus” on its own and should not be seen as wilfully getting ahead of the country or refusing to follow the country’s direction either.
...it is now not the best time to continue with this exploration because Shanghai’s epidemic containment approach is no longer a scientific issue but a political one.
The outside world actually also hopes that Shanghai can come up with a balanced approach that more Chinese cities can emulate. If Shanghai succeeds in doing so, it will play a positive role in China’s move towards a more sustainable pandemic containment approach. Unfortunately, the Omicron variant dealt a heavy blow to this round of exploration, which ultimately ended in failure. But failure should not be an excuse to deny further exploration efforts — wouldn’t giving up be another type of “lying flat” (躺平)?
However, amid the Covid-19 onslaught, it is now not the best time to continue with this exploration because Shanghai’s epidemic containment approach is no longer a scientific issue but a political one. In particular, the 20th Party Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) will meet in the latter half of the year, and stability is the CCP’s top political task.
Containing Shanghai’s Covid-19 outbreak, preventing its spread to other regions, and reducing pandemic-induced public dissatisfaction and social instability are perhaps the main reasons for State Council Vice Premier Sun Chunlan’s inspection visit to Shanghai. Sun’s “sword of state” demonstrates that the higher ups are no longer confident of Shanghai’s epidemic control efforts and have decided to intervene.
If the outbreak is still not contained by then, the timeline of Shanghai’s political reshuffle would be disrupted.
As a politically salient city, the political careers of Shanghai’s party leaders have always been highly regarded, but the top officials will certainly lose the upper hand following this wave of Covid-19 infections. Prior to the 19th Party Congress of the CCP in October 2017, the Shanghai Municipal People’s Congress commenced from 8 to 12 May that same year. If we follow the same timeline, the next Shanghai meeting, which paves the way for the 20th Party Congress, is just a month away. If the outbreak is still not contained by then, the timeline of Shanghai’s political reshuffle would be disrupted.
The current Covid-19 wave is not only a setback in China’s pandemic containment exploration but also a big test for the political careers of top Shanghai officials. The next few weeks will be crucial to whether this challenge can be overcome.
Related: Why rumours spread faster than outbreaks in Shanghai | As the virus spreads, can China calm its people and contain the outbreaks? | Chaos in Xi’an: From zero-Covid to ‘zero cases in communities’ | Is China ready to live with the virus? | China needs to break free of its zero-Covid policy. Here's how.