Demonstrations against Beijing’s zero-COVID policy have surged in the past week, with people voicing their frustration at not only the lockdown measures but also the government and President Xi Jinping himself. This kind of unrest is nearly unprecedented in the modern Chinese era and certainly cause for concern among the ruling elite.
Since the pandemic began, Beijing has consistently sought to contain COVID-19 by imposing city-wide lockdowns in which entry and exit were limited, if not forbidden, and in which activities were severely constrained. Why the government adopted such strict measures is unclear. No other countries imposed this degree of containment, largely because the costs of doing so were so high. Shanghai, the country’s most important financial hub, was shut down for weeks, while similar shutdowns occurred in smaller cities. And this is to say nothing of the impossibility of hermetically sealing large, densely populated and otherwise bustling Chinese cities.
We are left, then, with two possible explanations. One is that the government is trying to contain a mutation that the outside world is unaware of. This is self-evidently dubious, and in any case there hasn’t been the kind of body count one would expect from a new, deadlier strain. The second and more reasonable explanation is that Beijing instituted draconian policies to assert control of places that were already restive or unstable. COVID-19 was, in this scenario, merely a pretext.