The Times: Essential news from the L.A. Times

Shanghai’s lockdown tests limits

Episode Summary

The strict COVID lockdowns in Shanghai are testing China’s zero tolerance resolve.

Episode Notes

The strict lockdowns and zero-tolerance COVID policies that were once praised for keeping China largely infection-free; they’re back. And they’re now pushing people to their limits.

Today, how the recent lockdown in Shanghai is testing China’s zero tolerance strategy, and what it means for the country’s communist government. Read the full transcript here.

Host: Gustavo Arellano

Guests: L.A. Times China correspondent Stephanie Yang

More reading:

Strain of Shanghai’s COVID lockdown tests China’s zero tolerance resolve

Human toll from Shanghai lockdown fuels public frustration

‘It’s a nightmare’: Hong Kong runs low on coffins as Omicron exacts deadly toll

Episode Transcription

Gustavo: A lot of us in California and the rest of the country are back in crowded bars…packed inside concerts….sharing drinks and basically living like the pandemic is pretty much over…

But on the other side of the world…in Shanghai….it’s a completely different story. 

Clip of people screaming from locked-down apartment towers in Shanghai? 

That’s people in Shanghai screaming and yelling from inside their locked-down apartments. 

The strict lockdowns and zero-tolerance COVID policies that were once praised for keeping China largely infection-free…they're back… and they're now pushing people to their limits.

BEAT drop 1

I’m Gustavo Arellano. 

You’re listening to THE TIMES, daily news from the LA Times. 

It’s Friday, April 22. 

Today…How the recent lockdown in Shanghai is testing China’s zero tolerance strategy…and what this means for the country’s communist government.

Mux bump to fade out 

Gustavo: Stephanie Yang is the China correspondent for the LA Times. Stephanie, welcome to the Times

Stephanie Yang (SY): Thank you for having me.

GUSTAVO: So China's COVID zero policy got a lot of attention worldwide, both because of how drastic it seemed, but also because it seemed to work. What did that policy look like in practice? 

SY: So China's initial approach to the COVID outbreak was to implement these very, very strict lockdown measures. And the first time that we saw that was with the initial outbreak in Wuhan. 

Mux in

SY: China locked down the entire city, and at that point, it seemed really extreme.

AP TAPE: It wasn't clear how long the lockdown in Anyang, home to 5.5 million people, would last. Mass testing is being enforced, standard procedure whenever outbreaks pop up around the massive country. 

SY: But what I was able to do is virtually wipe out local infection. And after a couple of months, China was able to reopen within its borders and go about life as normal.

AP TAPE: A shutdown of public gatherings and the quarantine has steadied China's caseload as the virus spreads rapidly elsewhere. 
Django Django Normally 

AP TAPE: After arduous efforts, the positive momentum of China's epidemic situation is continuously consolidating and expanding. 


SY: China's COVID policy has essentially been a point of pride for Chinese officials as a way to show that this is the only way to contain the spread of a virus in a country that's as big as China. 


SY: So now, two years later, what they're doing is they're implementing the same type of policy in Shanghai to address the latest COVID outbreak. The issue is that two years into the pandemic, there is some fatigue about, you know, people in China not being able to travel abroad, not be able to move completely freely. There are still a lot of controls about which cities you can go to and the testing requirements that you have to fulfill. And then Omicron has also proven itself to be much more infectious than the initial strains. And so I think that that has really challenged what China has considered a tested and proven policy towards COVID. So what we're seeing in Shanghai right now is that all of these extreme measures– that are leading to these issues with people getting food, with logistics, with medical resources, all trying to fight this virus that is spreading faster than what they're used to.


GUSTAVO: Describe Shanghai for a lot of Americans, they might think, “Oh, it must be a big city,” but how important is it to China overall? 

SY: So it's China's biggest metropolis of about 25 million people and also has a lot of manufacturing located in and around the city, as well as being a major port. So another consequence that people are anticipating from this harsh lockdown is that it is going to further roil global supply chains and also impact the world economy. 

GUSTAVO: Had an outbreak this bad hit Shanghai before?

SY: So this is the first time that Shanghai is dealing with an outbreak of this size. Previously, Shanghai had been seen as this model containment system because they were able to effectively target and trace individual cases in order to keep it from spreading. And then when we see what's going on in Shanghai now, I think that there was also a reluctance to implement such harsh measures because Shanghai is so important to China, both economically and as a major metropolitan city of consumers. [00:04:16][26.5]

GUSTAVO: So because Shanghai is an economic hub, how did the city initially handle this outbreak? [00:04:22][5.4]

SY: So Shanghai initially tried to implement its targeted policy, tracking down cases, putting people in individual quarantine, close contacts of close contacts, and that web had worked previously for this, it seemed that this virus was continuing to spread.


SY:  And so their second plan of attack was to implement a rolling, grid-style lockdown, where they locked down individual neighborhoods, block by block, in a way that was up to different areas so that all of the residents in that area could go through mass testing. 


SY: Then when that actually didn't work, they switched to a stricter type of lockdown where they didn't lock down the city entirely. But they did it, divided by the Huang Pool River in Shanghai. So for the first few days, one side of the river was locked down and then for the next four days, another side of the river was locked down. Ultimately, before those lockdowns were even lifted, they realized that wasn't working either, and they resorted to a full citywide lockdown. 


SY: So through that, you can kind of see that they were trying to have some flexibility with it, which ultimately didn't work. 


GUSTAVO: Shanghai, you mentioned, hadn’t had an outbreak this way, so it hadn't had these shutdowns, so how did residents react to just literally a lockdown? 

SY: So I think initially when they were locking down, neighborhood by neighborhood, people were still pretty optimistic. You know, it didn't seem like things were that bad yet, and they were just all hopeful that it would be over soon and they could go back to normal. 


SY: One of the interesting things is watching what people are saying online about the lockdown. And so early on, this rap came out and became viral online, which described kind of in a humorous way the everyday challenges that people are facing, particularly as it comes to food. 


SY: The rap, which is mostly in the Shanghainese dialect, is called “Xian Mai Cai, Zai Zhuo He Suan”, which translates to “first grab your food and then go do your PCR test.” 


SY: And so this catchy rap with this hook that was all about everyone fighting over food, described you know, some of the types of food that they were both getting and missing.


SY: As well as some of the other aspects of lockdown, like getting tested, but ultimately ended on a positive note, hoping that it would be over soon. 


SY: So after the rap came out, it went viral online, mainly because a lot of people could relate to this and found it very funny how it captured some of the panic of trying to get groceries in those early days. 


SY: Then, as things started to get more intense, you saw people hoarding supplies,


SY: Fighting over groceries…

YOUTUBE TAPE: Everything is pretty much bare So for the bigger market, they'll see if we can grab some veggies or whatever 

SY: Trying to stock up for the coming lockdowns. But even for those, people thought that they were going to be in lockdown for maybe four or five days a week– tops. I don't think at that point, people really realized that it was going to be going on for as long as it has. And now that we're several weeks in, people are reporting having trouble getting supplies, getting food, getting medical resources. People are getting frustrated because there hasn't been a lot of clarity around policy. Even when they were switching between different lockdown styles. No one really knew what was going on. You just waited for the next official announcement. So there is this mounting frustration in the city, even though there are some people that are still supporters of this COVID-zero policy. I think that especially with the food shortages, it's been a real strain on people's mental states and also physical states as well. 

Mux bump to fade or hard out

GUSTAVO: We'll be right back. 


GUSTAVO:  And we’re back with my LA Times colleague Stephanie Yang. So…the lockdowns in Shanghai are like a flashback to 2020. The initial positivity that we can beat the pandemic fast… and then just… despair. 

SY: Yeah. So one of the residents in Shanghai that I talked to, you know, she talked me through kind of her own lockdown journey, going in and out of some of these policies. Her name is Tanya. She's the mother of three in Shanghai. Her family was put into quarantine in early March, and around that time, I remember her saying she thought that she was just one of the unfortunate ones that happened to get caught up in this contact tracing web, you know, and that it would be over soon. But the thing is, once they came out of their two weeks of isolation, the city had just changed completely. You know, businesses are shutting down, schools are shutting down. I mean, it's very similar to what we've seen in previous outbreaks, where all of a sudden it seems very severe, very quickly. And so from that point on, they're going through various stages of lockdown. They were also trying to stock up on food. And she had mentioned, you know, all in all, she still considers herself one of the lucky ones because people who are working in her building, they don't get to go home, you know, they're staying in the building to carry out monitoring and health testing and delivery workers and truckers are just having challenges getting anywhere. 


SY: Earlier this month, the audio that was going viral took a more serious turn with this recording that was essentially between a Shanghai CDC worker and a local citizen 

CALL TAPE: Hello is this CDC? Yes it is.

SY: Who had called in to complain about some discrepancies with the testing system and turned into this 20-minute conversation with both of them essentially expressing their frustration with the way that the system was working–or essentially not.

CALL TAPE: Complaining about who he should go to for help

SY: The Shanghai CDC leader that was on the phone; she also understood where this citizen was coming from. She was saying that the virus had become politicized, and she was telling her higher ups that they should allow asymptomatic or mild cases to quarantine at home since it was straining medical resources so much. But yet no one was listening.

CALL TAPE: Saying people don’t listen to her when she’s brought up complaints

SY: She was saying, there's no resources for the emergency line. There's no resources at the quarantine facilities. There's no resources at the hospital. Essentially, everything was strained. 

CALL TAPE: There are no resources for hospitals, for call centers, etc. 

SY: Halfway through the conversation, the caller confessed to recording the entire conversation

CALL TAPE: “I’m actually recording the conversation”

SY: And towards the end of it, he had asked, “All right, if I can't do anything about this and this and this, and I will listen. What am I supposed to do? What are we supposed to do?” 


SY: To which the Shanghai CDC official kind of laughed and said, “How about this? Why don't you send my recording out? Just post it.”

CALL TAPE: Just post the tape. It’s fine. It’s fine. 


SY: So a lot of people were sharing that recording online just because it showed how bad the situation in Shanghai had gotten. That even your local leaders have been frustrated. It was this voice to them validating some of the things that they had been feeling. 

GA: How has the rest of China responded to what's going on in Shanghai?

SY: So after seeing what happened in Shanghai, I think a lot of other local governments in China are trying to play it safe by being pretty strict in how they're approaching lockdowns now too. You know, no one wants to be the next city that has another major outbreak like Shanghai. So you're seeing other cities go into lockdown too, especially as the virus seems to be popping up in other areas. So that raises concern that, you know, this is going to affect even more parts of China going forward. 

GA: And I'm sure also people don't want to be locked down the way people have been locked down before and currently in Shanghai.

SY: Yeah. So for some other cities, some people are trying to stock up on necessary goods because they have seen what happened in Shanghai.  They’ve seen the videos, they’ve seen the complaints and they're worried about, you know, food shortages of their own. So I think that there is some concern looking at that and wondering if it's going to happen in their cities, especially because Shanghai is just such a huge, sophisticated city that the thought is: if this can happen in Shanghai, it can happen anywhere. 

GA: Stephanie, before the break, you were talking about how COVID zero has been a point of pride for China, and governments around the world obviously had all sorts of different approaches not just to protect the vulnerable, but also because of politics. What was the rationale for China's hard handed approach? 

SY: Yeah. For China, what you said is right that they really take pride in this ability to essentially wipe out the virus's local spread. And so I think that there's been a lot of reluctance to give that up. A, because it has been effective in the past/ And B, because it has sort of been a case of success for China's particular style of governance. China's uh  leaders can point to their COVID zero policy and their low case and death rate compared to other countries, other democracies like the U.S., and say, “Look at how well we've done, and look at how well our style of governance works in protecting people.” And so now that that's being directly challenged in places like Shanghai, I think that's going to prove to be difficult, especially as Chinese citizens get more and more frustrated with that style of epidemic prevention policy.

GA: What's been the economic toll of shutting down Shanghai? Which, as you said earlier, is just such a huge economic and manufacturing hub? 

SY: So another thing politically is that it's been very important for Chinese leaders to support economic growth this year, particularly as President Xi Jinping is planning to take a third term in power.


SY: And so what Chinese leaders did earlier this year is they set a five point five percent GDP growth target, which a lot of analysts had agreed was ambitious already. It was going to be tough to meet it, but they could, you know, through monetary policy. And so with lockdowns, you know, that's hitting, especially in Shanghai, it's hitting both manufacturing industrial growth and also consumption. And so, the longer that this lockdown goes on in Shanghai and you know, the more that this spreads to other cities, the harder it's going to be for them to meet that particular economic goal. 


GA: All this discontent, what's the political implications for President Xi? 

SY: I think a lot of people are speculating that the mayor of Shanghai is going to take the fall for this, obviously it was not handled well at all. It's become a major issue, and we've already seen other local leaders lose their positions because of the way that they've handled outbreaks.


SY: I think you can definitely see that Chinese leaders are worried about this kind of discontent among its citizens. You've seen them or racing those types of posts on social media and also promoting a very positive, sunny picture in their own state media about how well they're handling COVID. I think a lot of the ultimate impact will depend on how long this goes on for and how much it spreads. We've seen that people are frustrated, not only citizens, but healthcare workers, businesses. And so that could end up having a lasting impact. We saw a lot of similar things in Wuhan in the early days and people were frustrated and people were scared and people were fed up. But after COVID zero proved to be an effective policy, a lot of those complaints kind of faded into the background. So I think it all depends ultimately on how well they handle it from here. 


GUSTAVO: More after the break. 


GUSTAVO: Stephanie, with all of this outrage in Shanghai about the Zero-COVID policies, what are officials currently doing to lessen that public outrage? 

SY: On the local level, the Shanghai government has acknowledged that there have been issues and government officials have said that they are working to alleviate some of these issues with food shortages. They have also sent a vice premier Sun Chunlan to Shanghai to oversee the situation, and she has been involved in the response to several other major outbreaks, starting with the one back in Wuhan. So I think that they know that there are issues they're trying to resolve, but also at the same time they're quite occupied with perception. And so they want to fix these issues. But they also don't want people being too vocal about their unhappiness with those issues, which I think for some people is frustrating on another level. 

GA: But they're not lessening their policies? 

SY: No. So in some areas in Shanghai, they have relaxed measures, and this is also another part where policy is very varied and unclear that some residents, if they don't have positive tests in their compound, can go out. But in some cases it's only for an hour. In some cases, it's only around the block. And so I think that there has been some attempts to lessen that, but it's been very fragmented.

GA: So this heavy handed approach, how is it playing out when it comes to COVID deaths in Shanghai?

SY: For Shanghai, I think that there's been a lot of confusion over why these case counts continue to rise, even though the city has been locked down. But at the same time, the majority of those case counts have been marked as asymptomatic or very mild cases. And up until now, China actually hasn't reported any COVID-related deaths. And so from that perspective, you can kind of assume that it is working to an extent to protect the elderly, which is the most vulnerable population. You know, we saw it in Hong Kong. We're also seeing it in China now, where the elderly vaccination rate just lags behind the rest of the population. And so for China's most recent COVID vaccination figures, I believe that for people 80 years of age and up, only about 20% have gotten three shots and about 50% have gotten two shots. So you can see that they’re the most vulnerable, and they're the ones that think China's COVID-zero policy is aiming to protect. At the same time, there have also been reports out about the spread of local infection and deaths at Shanghai's elderly care facilities. So even though those are not marked necessarily as COVID deaths, it does seem like it is spreading and having an impact. Most recently, Shanghai did log its first few COVID related deaths, and they were all for people who are 80 and up. 

GA: How are the people that you're talking to, like Tanya, processing all of this? 

SY: It's been mixed. Some people are trying to stay positive. Some people are getting quite frustrated. A lot of people have been spending a lot of time on social media, and I think that that's been kind of hard. You know, seeing all of this difficult news come out and sharing these videos and these essays about what it's like to be in Shanghai right now. 


SY:  At the same time, you know, people like Tanya have also said, you know, one of the nice things is that you experience the care and communication with neighbors, and a lot of people have turned to group buying to get groceries. People have turned to bartering. People have turned to checking in on vulnerable neighbors that they know maybe have less food or need some sort of medication. And so because people feel that the government system is, is failing in getting them what they need, there's a lot more community support and organizing. 


GA: And finally, the Chinese Communist Party's, its national Congress, it's still half a year away. So officials have that time to get any outbreaks under control. And if that happens, does this current discontent that China critics say, “Oh, finally, this is going to lead to liberty in China?” Will this current discontent with the government last? 

SY: I think whenever we see people becoming frustrated like this and showing some sort of outward protest, it seems people tend to take it as maybe this is a turning point. Maybe this is something really significant. At the same time, you know, like I mentioned in Wuhan, we also saw that and it didn't ultimately lead to anything really down the road or any sort of change because they were able to handle COVID and get the situation under control. So it's going to depend, but it is possible that this will all be just another chapter six months down the road. 

GA: People have short memories. 

SY: Mmhmm.


GA: Stephanie, thank you so much for this conversation. 

SY: Great. Thank you. 




GUSTAVO: And that's it for this episode of THE TIMES, daily news from the LA Times. 

Next week, the two-month anniversary of the war in Ukraine, a look into how big tobacco uses Black trauma to sell its products, and the 30th anniversary of the LA Riots. 

Shannon Lin was the jefa on this episode, and our show is also produced by Denise Guerra, Kasia Broussalian, Ashley Brown, Angel Carreras and David Toledo. Our audio engineer is Mario Diaz. Our editor is Kinsee Morlan. Our executive producers are Jazmín Aguilera and Shani Hilton. And our theme music is like Andrew Eapen. Like what you're listening to? Then make sure to follow THE TIMES on whatever platform you use. Don't make us the Poochie of podcasts.

And hey…our team is growing. Thanks to our new editorial assistants, Madalyn Amato and Carlos De Loera, who’ve been cleaning up our transcripts. We’re gonna start including links to our transcripts in the show notes. Accessibility, you know? 

 I’m Gustavo Arellano. We'll be back next week, with all the news and desmadre. Gracias. Thank you Shannon.