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China secretly locks down cities as residents start to push back COVID-zero scheme

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It’s nearly impossible to eat in a restaurant in Wuhan, the central Chinese city where COVID-19 was first detected nearly three years ago. There are few flights out of Zhengzhou, home to the country’s largest iPhone factory. And many children in the tech hub of Shenzhen haven’t been inside a classroom in weeks.

Sweeping lockdown orders like that deployed in Shanghai earlier this year haven’t been announced in any of these places, yet people, businesses and entertainment venues are operating as if they’re in place.

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Local officials, under pressure to implement President Xi Jinping’s strict Covid Zero policy with less impact on society and the economy, are instead going under the radar, communicating restrictions with businesses directly, or shutting small sections of a city incrementally to avoid the panic of a blanket order. In some cases, residents aren’t even being told, coming home to find they’re locked down.

The growing trend in stealth lockdowns comes as opposition to China’s ongoing, zero-tolerance approach to Covid gathers pace. Xi reinforced the policy as the right one for the country at his address to the once-in-five-years Communist Party congress last month, but gave no guidance on when -- or even if -- China would abandon the economically-damaging strategy. Since the meeting ended, virus control measures have intensified, according to analysis by Japanese bank Nomura.

‘Targeted Approach’

Wuhan, with 13 million residents, is one of many places where restrictions are being quietly imposed.

Lockdowns were recently announced in two districts, Hanyang and Jiangan, but beyond that there have been no other official statements about widespread Covid restrictions. In the city center, however, the Westin hotel in Wuchang has been told to shutter its restaurant, as were others in the district, a staff member said.

A representative from Wuhan’s government hotline said the city was implementing a targeted approach. No one order applies to everyone, said the staff member, who declined to give her name. While most restaurants in Wuhan are closed, some should be open, she said, reflecting potential confusion over the curbs. It all depends on the local Covid situation, which is fluid, the woman told Bloomberg News over the phone.

It’s a similar situation in Zhengzhou, a city in central China that’s home to Taiwanese company Foxconn Technology Group’s vast iPhone assembly site. Officials have progressively imposed a web of small lockdowns and restrictions on areas as small as an apartment block.

The effect is that the city of some 13 million is now almost entirely locked down, without the market-roiling headlines that accompanied Shanghai’s shutdown order, or the city-wide lockdown of Chengdu in September.

Quiet School Shutdowns

Other key manufacturing zones including Guangzhou, home to China’s garment industry, Fuzhou in the south and Shanghai itself are following a similar route to Zhengzhou and Wuhan. All are imposing movement restrictions on small areas or neighborhoods, and have suspended businesses.

In Shanghai and Shenzhen, home to tech giant Tencent Holdings Ltd., local authorities rarely issue announcements on school closures anymore. Parents are informed by schools verbally, or through messaging apps, that physical classes have been suspended because of Covid curbs.

The lack of transparency from officials means families are suffering quietly, without the wider community realizing what’s going on, said a mother of two young children in Shenzhen, who only wanted to give her last name, Huo. Her daughter’s school has held in-person classes for fewer than 100 days this year due to on-and-off again class suspensions.

The stealth restrictions are a growing phenomenon across China, said Andy Chen, a senior analyst with Beijing-based consultancy Trivium China. It appears authorities at the grass-roots level are implementing measures while they await clearer instructions from the central government, including the future direction of the Covid Zero approach.

“I think there’s confusion on the local government level as to the extent to enforce this policy,” Chen said. “They’re improvising.”

Xi’s communications at the Party congress gave the policy “a big thumbs up,” according to Chen, but didn’t say anything about the future.

The impact of under-the-radar restrictions can also be seen in a reduction in air travel in China. Nationwide, 4,234 planned flights were successfully completed on Monday, with 8,021 canceled, according to data from flight data provider Variflight. That compares to 11,738 completed flights on the same day in 2019.

Among the country’s 27 biggest airports, Urumqi in the northwestern region of Xinjiang had the fewest completed flights on Tuesday, at just 3.7%. Parts of Xinjiang have been subject to lockdown for more than 80 days, with Covid cases continuing to flare there. Zhengzhou was the second-lowest for completed flights at 8.9%, while Wuhan’s airport had a 23.3% completion rate.

Even when cities or regions say they’ve lifted lockdowns, the freedom doesn’t trickle down to everyone.

Authorities in Zhengzhou said a shutdown of “controlled areas” ended on Tuesday, but many locals said on social media they still couldn’t leave their neighborhoods. A resident in Tibet’s capital, Lhasa, told Bloomberg she’s been confined to her housing compound for more than 80 days, despite the regional government announcing on October 22 that restrictions were being eased.

Chen, at Trivium China, said he expects the situation to continue. All the reasons that make Beijing reluctant to abandon Covid Zero -- inadequate health care resources, less effective vaccines and insufficient immunization rates among the elderly -- are still present.

“Covid is still top of mind among the leaders, given the risk on the economic side,” Chen said. Still, “it’s hard to pivot.”

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