China’s Covid Zero Scars Leave Citizens Fearful of Curbs

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(Bloomberg) -- One year after President Xi Jinping abandoned his Covid Zero strategy, vestiges of China’s vast anti-epidemic architecture are exposing the underlying scars of a regime that caused rare social unrest.

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Reports some provinces haven’t deleted the digital health codes that captured troves of data during the pandemic caused alarm in recent weeks. “Who still wants to go back to the dark period?” one user wrote on Weibo, after learning the technology was still on a government app in southern Guangdong province.

The Chinese microblogging platform soon after shut down a hashtag on the subject, citing unspecified regulations. While the traffic light code is no longer required for day-to-day travel, its continued presence has fueled concerns the government could abruptly revive its expansive monitoring infrastructure.

Footage of hazmat suit-wearing cleaners sanitizing a school in Hubei province also provoked outrage online last week, as flu outbreak swept the nation. The scenes triggered memories of the “Big White” pandemic enforcers who disinfected people’s homes. “When I see this kind of stuff my heart is very uneasy,” a top-rated comment said on Weibo.

The sporadic incidents highlight an underlying anxiety among citizens that China’s Covid controls could be reinstated as abruptly as they were lifted. The Communist Party’s strategy of lockdowns and mass virus testing was axed almost overnight last December after a surge in cases and rare nationwide protests that at times called for the removal of President Xi Jinping.

Chinese authorities also appear to be on high-alert. Police patrolled the site of the Beijing demonstrations on their first anniversary, while Xi visited Shanghai over that week’s milestone, ensuring high security in the finance hub.

“China in the years to come will have to grapple with the aftermath of Covid Zero,” said Lynette Ong, professor of political science at the University of Toronto, describing the nation as suffering a type of post-traumatic stress.

“Society is on edge,” she added. “The consequence is that the state and society relationship is going to be very tense.”

Spot Tests

Testing, one of the hallmarks of China’s virus elimination strategy, has never been completely lifted in the world’s second-largest economy, adding to citizens’ concerns that pandemic curbs could resume.

Auto manufacturer XPeng Inc.’s co-founder He Xiaopeng said he was asked to take a nucleic acid test right upon arriving in Shanghai this month, according to a now-deleted post on his official Weibo page. “It’s precisely these weird rules that made good policies unable to show effects,” he said in the post, which was seen by Bloomberg News. XPeng didn’t reply to a request for comment.

He’s account echoed scattered reports on social media throughout this year of travelers being subject to spot Covid testing at Chinese airports, something seen firsthand by Bloomberg News. Events with senior Communist Party officials also still require Covid screening, with the number of tests called for normally increasing in relation to the status of the leader.

Tian Li, a finance professor at Harbin University of Commerce, posted on YouTube that organizers of a recent forum held in the southern city of Guangzhou advised attendees to take an optional Covid test, citing the presence of international attendees and rising flu cases.

China has seen a combination of pathogens cause a surge in acute respiratory infections across the country in recent weeks, with the sources of the illnesses all being known germs, according to the government.

“People are worried about a potential lockdown and corresponding economic and social crises, which could change their life like Covid,” said Bin Xu, an associate sociology professor at Emory University, Atlanta. “The prevalent memories of Covid are almost entirely negative.”

Total Elimination

The language of China’s virus strategy is also embedded in the nation’s vernacular. The phrase total elimination — or qing ling — which gained prominence during the party’s mission to eliminate the virus, is still common in government speech, an unintentional reminder of the Covid era.

Authorities have used qing ling in propaganda campaigns this year urging residential compounds to sort their trash, encouraging tech companies to invest in research, and instructing employers to return wages to migrant workers before the upcoming Lunar New Year.

Public access to university campuses has also not been restored to pre-pandemic levels, when students and visitors could easily come and go. Many schools shut their premises to the public during the pandemic, to minimize external contact, and have upheld those controls.

“If a university relies on isolation for a long time, it can certainly reduce its risks and become more secure,” said Zhejiang’s propaganda department in a commentary Wednesday calling for more universities to open up. “But the impact on truly becoming a university for the whole society should not be underestimated,” the department added.

That phenomenon is emblematic of a broader struggle in the Chinese system to fully reopen after the pandemic, according to Hanzhang Liu, an assistant professor of political studies at Pitzer College, California who specializes in authoritarian systems. “If the priority for local governments and universities continues to be stability maintenance, they just can’t fully open up,” she added.

There are signs Chinese citizens aren’t ready to forget the Covid Zero era. Users this month flocked to the comment section of Covid whistleblower Li Wenliang’s final Weibo post, to commemorate the doctor. “It’s been a year since the reopening. Life has become increasingly difficult for everyone,” one user wrote. “It may be a crime to even remember the epidemic in the future.”

During Halloween this year, scores of people wore virus-related costumes in Shanghai, the eastern metropolis that saw a grueling months-long lockdown, expressing their disdain for virus controls.

Some residents dressed as a Covid testing station, while others donned white hazmat suits emulating quarantine enforcers. One party-goer covered herself in blank papers, a symbol of the anti-Covid protests.

“This is the best cos so far,” wrote a Weibo user of the paper outfit, using a shorthand for costume. “When political expressions are not allowed, everything is a political expression.”

--With assistance from Colum Murphy.

(Updates with comment on Li Wenliang’s last Weibo post.)

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