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Why China won't relent on its 'zero COVID' strategy47:35
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A transit officer, wearing a protective gear, controls access to a tunnel in the direction of Pudong district in lockdown as a measure against the Covid-19 coronavirus, in Shanghai on March 28, 2022. (HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP via Getty Images)
A transit officer, wearing a protective gear, controls access to a tunnel in the direction of Pudong district in lockdown as a measure against the Covid-19 coronavirus, in Shanghai on March 28, 2022. (HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP via Getty Images)

Shanghai, population more than 25 million, has been under almost total lockdown as China continues to pursue its uncompromising COVID-zero strategy.

“It's really eerie," journalist Brenda Goh says. "All the shops are shut. The people you see on bikes are all in like white hazmat suits. I think everybody is pretty much on tenterhooks in Shanghai."

Even though Shanghai's lockdown has relaxed somewhat, after weeks in their homes, the frustration is palpable and audible.

"This is like a whack-a-mole approach. You cannot eradicate the virus," Yanzhong Huang says. "Basically [in] just a matter of time, we would expect the next wave to come."

Today, On Point: Why China won't relent on its COVID zero strategy.

Guests

Don Weinland, China business and finance editor for The Economist. He and his wife have been mostly confined to their hotel for 61 days. (@donweinland)

Dr. Yangyang Cheng, fellow and research scholar at Yale Law School's Paul Tsai China Center and a frequent columnist on Chinese politics and U.S.-China relations.
(@yangyang_cheng)

Yanzhong Huang, senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations. Director of global health studies at Seton Hall University's School of Diplomacy and International Relations. Author of Toxic Politics. (@YanzhongHuang)

Also Featured

Judith McCool, head of the department of epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of Auckland.

Interview Highlights: Journalist Don Weinland On His Quarantine In China, And The Country's 'COVID Zero' Policy

Shanghai's population of 25 million has been ordered to stay at home since the government imposed a lockdown at the end of March.

Some 46 cities across China are under full or partial lockdown, affecting the lives of more than 343 million people. That's about exactly the same size as the United States.

It's all part of China's COVID zero policy. As infections keep popping up, the government keeps clamping down.

Now, other countries have tried COVID zero programs: New Zealand, Taiwan, Vietnam, [to name a few]. But all of them have pulled back from the goal of total COVID eradication. Only China is holding fast.

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: So today we're going to ask why and how the COVID zero strategy is having an impact on China. And ... how that is having an impact on the rest of the world. So let's begin in Shanghai. Don Weinland is there. He's China business and finance editor for The Economist. And he was first on obligatory quarantine. And then the lockdown began at the end of March in Shanghai. So he and his wife have been mostly confined to their hotel for 61 days. Don, welcome to On Point.

DON WEINLAND: Hello.

CHAKRABARTI: So, first of all, tell me, what are the conditions right now, of your particular lockdown?

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WEINLAND: The conditions right now have actually become more strict, just over the past 24 hours. We were allowed a little bit of time out over the weekend, but there's been a a shift in policy. And things have tightened up and we are back inside. We can't order delivery food anymore, which is, you know, that makes things a lot more difficult. So, yeah, things just recently have become more difficult for us.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. I said you were confined to your hotel, but should I be more specific? Is it your hotel room that you and your wife have been confined to?

WEINLAND: We're in something that's a little bit better than your average hotel room. So we're in a serviced apartment. It has two rooms, a small kitchen. So it's a bit better than an average hotel room.

CHAKRABARTI: Now, beforehand in previous interviews that you've done, you were able to leave, what, once a day in order to actually go get PCR tested? Is that still going on? Or are you literally in your hotel room or your suite 24/7?

WEINLAND: So for the past two days we've actually been asked to do the rapid at-home antigen tests in our room, so we haven't gone downstairs for the PCR tests. Prior to that, we had been going down nearly every day to a place just next door to do the PCR test. So we were able to step outside at least once a day.

CHAKRABRTI: Honestly, Don, how is your mental health right now?

WEINLAND: You know, I would say week two, week three ... that was probably the most difficult period of time. Honestly speaking, I mean, I feel like I've gotten used to it. And I've gotten past some of those feelings of anxiety. My wife is doing very well, as well. You know, she has good days. She has bad days. But yeah, I mean, at this point, 61 days in, this is kind of the new reality for us.

At this point, 61 days in, this is kind of the new reality for us.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. So about food, though. If you can't get food deliveries, how are you and other people in Shanghai, what's the situation now for the basic needs of life?

WEINLAND: In the earliest days, it was very difficult to get food. And then it got much better because we could start delivering off of food apps and food services. We have enough to get by for the next few days if they keep this very strict lockdown in place. But the government says that they will deliver food.

And we received a package of food today from the government. I actually haven't looked inside. But yeah, I'm not too hopeful. You know, if the government does have to continue providing food, I'm not terribly hopeful that they can provide the best stuff.

We received a package of food today from the government.

CHAKRABARTI: So then to the larger point of the other, you know, sticking with Shanghai for a moment, the other, you know, 25 million plus people in the city. Has that been the situation? That food, when needed, has been provided by the Chinese government?

WEINLAND: In some places, yes. In many places, no. So you were playing some clips of people protesting earlier on. And I think there's lots of people in the city that have not had adequate access to food. I don't think my situation here is representative of how things work across the city. This is a huge city. So, yeah, there's plenty of people that have struggled to get food, for sure.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. So, you know, I know it's a little odd to ask you about what's happening in the rest of Shanghai, given that you haven't been able to leave your hotel or hotel room for more than 60 days here. But as you know, I mean, there have been a lot of waves on social media, reports of increasing anxiety and frustration. I mean, how would you describe what the tenor or tension in the city is right now after a long, prolonged and very severe lockdown?

WEINLAND: Yeah. It's an interesting question for somebody who is spending most of their time inside. I was allowed outside on the weekends, so things opened up on Saturday, and I was allowed to walk outside. My wife and I had a two and a half hour walk. So I did get a good look at what was going on.

I've lived in Shanghai in the past. And I mean, this city is basically unrecognizable. The streets are completely dead. There's almost nobody outside. There are very few cars. The people that you do see are the medical workers in their white hazmat suits. I mean, it's very, very bizarre. So it's certainly not its usual self.

I've lived in Shanghai in the past. And I mean, this city is basically unrecognizable. The streets are completely dead. There's almost nobody outside.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. I mean, it's actually almost impossible to imagine a city like Shanghai being so empty, and still and quiet. It's eerie. But, I mean, just last week, President Xi reiterated this iron fisted commitment to COVID zero. He urged COVID enforcers, essentially in places like Shanghai and the other cities that are under this extreme lockdown, to quote, 'unswervingly adhere to the general policy of dynamic COVID zero.'

So, I mean, tell us more, Don, about what you can gather about the response to that. Why this is happening. You know, again, leaning on what you've been experiencing now, and your experience overall as a business and finance editor in China for The Economist.

WEINLAND: Yeah. So the specific comments from the standing committee of the Politburo that were released last week, I think we are now experiencing that in Shanghai right now. So the increased restrictions, the stopping of food delivery is basically a response, from what we can tell, to that that message.

So, yes, they are really putting a stop to any kind of free movement in order to try to lower cases. And one interesting thing from that message from the government ... in the past, they had talked about balancing the COVID response with economic growth. They didn't really have a lot of that language this time. So that means that, you know, they're willing to sacrifice more and more economic growth to control COVID.

They're willing to sacrifice more and more economic growth to control COVID.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. So let's talk about that, Don. I mean, given again that you are the China business and finance editor for The Economist. What impact is this having, first of all, on China?

WEINLAND: Yeah. So this is the business and finance hub of the country. It's one of the biggest cities in the world. It's one of the biggest manufacturing areas in the world. So naturally, when you lock it down, it has a huge impact. If we're just thinking about, say, industry in China, there are lots of factories within the city of Shanghai.

You know, there's a Tesla factory that Reuters reported that they were slowing down their operations yet again. So there's lots of industrial activity that is suffering greatly right now. There is another side to this as well, which is, you know, small businesses. And, you know, walking outside, the few times that I've had the opportunity to do that, you can see that nothing is open, no shops are open, it's completely silent.

So you can only imagine the type of impact that has on small business owners and just, you know, average mom and pop type stores.

CHAKRABARTI: Hmm. Okay. And so then inevitably given, as I said earlier, China being what it is, how do you anticipate that's going to have a ripple effect outside of China?

WEINLAND: So in terms of the direct business impact, you know, there's a lot of auto parts and cars that are made in this city, and in other parts of China that have been impacted by COVID recently. You know, it takes a long time to build these things and ship them to the U.S.

I think in places like the U.S., people that have ordered specific models of cars that are produced in these areas, they might not get them on time. They might be delayed significantly. So ... that's just one example of the impact of this kind of rippling around the globe. Another side to this is that a lot of companies will probably expedite their plans to diversify their supply chains. That means opening up a factory in Vietnam or elsewhere in Asia.

I think in places like the U.S., people that have ordered specific models of cars that are produced in these areas, they might not get them on time.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, you know, Don, we've got about 30 seconds left here. I mean, obviously, you and the many hundreds of millions of Chinese who are under this prolonged lockdown now don't really have a choice. But how long do you think you can keep tolerating it?

WEINLAND: It's a really good question. It's something that I talk about almost every day with my wife. We have not set a departure date. So, you know, hopefully we make it through.

CHAKRABARTI: And by the way, are you vaccinated?

WEINLAND: I'm definitely vaccinated.

CHAKRABARTI: With ... not the Chinese vaccine?

WEINLAND: With Pfizer. Pfizer and boosted.

CHAKRABARTI:  And nevertheless, being in China right now, you have to stay confined to that hotel room. Well, Don Weinland, China business and finance editor for The Economist, with us from Shanghai, thank you so much for joining us, Don.

WEINLAND: Thanks very much.

This program aired on May 10, 2022.

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