Last Saturday, there were hardly any shoppers at a megamall in Beijing’s Haidian District. A security guard scanning entry QR codes said that mall visitors have dropped to just a few hundreds a day, which is just a fraction of the usual footfall.
As Beijing banned dining in during the Labour Day holiday, the coterie of restaurants on the 5th floor of the mall stood empty. Every once in a while, a straggling chef or waiter sat idle in the dining room. A chef told me that as only takeaways are allowed now, sales have been bad. Those who report to work still draw a minimum wage, but other colleagues forced to “rest” at home have no income.
“We can only grin and bear it now. Hopefully we can survive until dining in is allowed again,” the crestfallen chef said. He asked me in turn, “When do you think the ban will be lifted?”
I did not have an answer and could only give a rueful smile, shaking my head.
Beijing officials have said that the pandemic situation in Beijing is “still very challenging”, with intermittent sporadic cases and clusters being detected, which means that the transmission chain has not been broken. The official response calls for the acceleration of epidemic prevention and control measures, the undertaking of “four-party responsibilities” (四方责任, namely territorial responsibility, department responsibility, employer responsibility and individual responsibility), and the use of strong and decisive measures to stop the spread of the pandemic.
On 14 May, Beijing officials reported that a new cluster was found at one of the courier stations of express company Yunda’s Fangshan branch. This cluster has been linked to 16 confirmed Covid-19 cases. Fangshan district issued a statement overnight on 13 May saying that after tracking over 200,000 parcels and potential chains of transmission, it has placed one village and four communities under lockdown (封控) and another 24 villages and 68 communities under strict control (管控). Nobody would be allowed to enter or leave areas under lockdown and residents would need to undergo PCR tests in the morning and ART tests in the afternoon. The authorities would go door to door to administer the PCR tests daily to ensure that no one is missed out.
A single spate of Covid-19 cases was enough to grind an entire district to a halt, demonstrating once more the authorities’ great power in giving commands and mobilising society to contain the pandemic.
At the same time, Fangshan district laid down a work-from-home policy and suspended all public transport including buses, subways and ride-hailing services. Entrance and exit control at all checkpoints, intersections and village entrances would also be tightened so as not to miss a single person or vehicle.
Lockdowns not so effective anymore
A single spate of Covid-19 cases was enough to grind an entire district to a halt, demonstrating once more the authorities’ great power in giving commands and mobilising society to contain the pandemic. As for the price that people will have to pay because of such harsh control measures, that is a factor not considered by the officials. It is clear that if the authorities deem there is a need, China’s economic centre or not, Shanghai gets locked down, and Beijing’s economic core or not, Chaoyang district is semi-locked down.
In the past, lockdowns were effective in quickly containing the spread of the coronavirus, but not any more.
The authorities are imposing such harsh epidemic prevention and control measures to protect the people’s health, and this is not wrong. Over the past two years, China has indeed achieved great success in containing the pandemic. But the problem is that the Omicron variant spreads more easily and stealthily than the earlier variants, making epidemic prevention and control extremely difficult. In the past, lockdowns were effective in quickly containing the spread of the coronavirus, but not any more.
Since the second half of April, Beijing has been ramping up its pandemic efforts, but there are dozens of new confirmed or asymptomatic cases every day. Shanghai’s “precise outbreak containment measures” have utterly failed — the lockdown has been in place for a month and a half, but each day there are still hundreds of confirmed cases and thousands of asymptomatic cases, which has undermined the effectiveness of the lockdown, and severely damaged public confidence in pandemic control efforts.
But amid the suffering due to the lockdown, there was finally some good news for Shanghai on 15 May when deputy mayor Chen Tong announced that from the next day, the city would start a phased recovery of operations based on “orderly opening, limited movement, effective controls and differentiated management”.
... China’s economic losses due to the pandemic are starting to show.
But many people are still worried that the transmissibility of the Omicron variant will interrupt Shanghai’s recovery. Will Shanghai be stuck in limbo between lockdown and lifting lockdown, and will this spread to other parts of the country?
Economic impact sizeable
Meanwhile, China’s economic losses due to the pandemic are starting to show. Exports and consumption are weak; last year, China’s total exports grew by nearly 30%. This year, export growth was at about 16% year-on-year in January and February; 15% in March; and only 3.9% in April. Growth fell by over 20 percentage points in exports of automobiles, vessels, machinery and mobile phones.
At an economics forum on 14 May, Tsinghua University lecturer David Li Daokui said the pandemic has led to lower consumption, not just because of a bottleneck in online purchases, but also because many people have seen a drop in income, leading to lower consumption that will become a habit. “We have found through statistical studies that a 1% drop in consumption today will lead to a drop over the next seven, eight years. There will be psychological effects.”
China pulling out of hosting the Asia Cup shocked many, because not only does it mean China’s football fans will not be able to watch matches on home ground, but the implication is that China may not be able to shake off the pandemic by June next year.
Besides the economy and daily life, the pandemic is having an increasing impact on China’s participation in international events. After postponing the Asian Games in Hangzhou and the World University Games in Chengdu, on 14 May China pulled out of hosting the AFC Asia Cup in June 2023. Clearly, after hosting the Beijing Winter Olympics in February, China will not be hosting any large-scale international events for a while.
China pulling out of hosting the Asia Cup shocked many, because not only does it mean China’s football fans will not be able to watch matches on home ground, but the implication is that China may not be able to shake off the pandemic by June next year. In the words of netizens, the feeling is “exasperating”.
Under enormous economic pressure, the authorities are sticking to strict prevention and controls, showing courage and vigour. However, the costs of strict prevention and controls are huge, and will eventually become unsustainable. Clearly, at this moment and for some time to come, China’s biggest challenge is how to move out of the pandemic and bring the economy back on track.
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