Editor’s Note: A version of this story appeared in CNN’s Meanwhile in China newsletter, a three-times-a-week update exploring what you need to know about the country’s rise and how it impacts the world. Sign up here.
More than 70 Chinese cities have been placed under full or partial Covid lockdowns since late August, impacting more than 300 million people, as local authorities rush to stamp out infections at all cost in the final countdown to leader Xi Jinping’s expected third term.
Since August 20, at least 74 cities with a combined population of 313 million have imposed lockdowns that cover entire cities, districts or multiple neighborhoods, according to CNN’s calculations. They include 15 provincial capitals and Tianjin, a provincial-level municipality.
Many of the restrictions are still in place. According to Chinese financial magazine Caixin, 33 cities are currently under partial or full lockdowns. Experts say more cities are likely to be added in the coming weeks.
The sweeping restrictions that upend lives and businesses stand in stark contrast with the return to normal life in much of the world, where societies have mostly pivoted to living with the virus.
But China insists that zero-Covid is saving lives. Health officials have cited the relatively low elderly vaccination rate and inadequate rural healthcare as hurdles to relaxing restrictions, but Chinese public health experts say political factors have played an outsized role, too.
Xi, a staunch advocate for the country’s uncompromising zero-Covid strategy, is poised to be anointed as the country’s top leader for another five years at the 20th Party Congress, scheduled to start on October 16.
The highly choreographed affair is meant to be a moment of celebration and vindication of the achievements of the Party – and of Xi personally over his decade in power. And a severe outbreak risks undermining that triumphant image, experts say.
“The Party wants to make sure nothing untoward, such as a major outbreak, could potentially threaten social stability, shadow the leadership transition process – and not to mention tarnish Xi’s personal leadership credibility,” said Yanzhong Huang, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations.
The ruling Communist Party has used the zero-Covid strategy to argue that its political model is superior to Western democracies, and Xi has thrown his weight behind the policy.
Earlier this year, a painful two-month lockdown in Shanghai sparked a public backlash and crippled the economy, leading some to question the zero-tolerance approach. In response, Xi issued a strong warning against critics, vowing to “resolutely fight against any words and acts that distort, doubt or deny” his zero-Covid policy.
Officials across the country have taken note. The main lesson they learned from Shanghai, Huang said, is to act more decisively and immediately when facing even the smallest of potential outbreaks.
For local officials, doubling down on zero-Covid is a way to toe the Party line, demonstrate their loyalty to Xi, and prevent any large-scale outbreak that could jeopardize their career weeks before the Party congress.
“This provides a strong incentive for them to undertake heavy-handed, extreme preemptive measures,” Huang said. “In the coming month and a half, we’re going to see more cities under lockdown.”
The sweeping lockdowns – sometimes in response to just a handful of cases – have hit several metropolises home to more than 10 million people as well as major industry hubs.
In southwestern China, the mega city of Chengdu placed its 21 million residents under lockdown on Thursday. On Sunday, authorities extended the lockdown for most of the city and ordered more mass testing from Monday to Wednesday.
The city’s digital system used to register Covid tests has crash repeatedly due to the sudden surge in entries, resulting in long lines at testing sites. Photos circulating on social media show health workers raising their arms and holding mobile phones up in the air – in a futile attempt to receive better signals. Neusoft Corporation, the Chinese company providing the software, blamed the crashes on “network malfunction” in a statement released over the weekend.
Chinese metropolis of Chengdu locks down 21 million residents
On Sunday, a Chengdu mother said in a tearful video monologue that she lost her critically ill son after he was forcefully quarantined for a week and missed the crucial time window to treat his heart disease. CNN has been unable to interdependently verify her claims and the government has yet to respond, but the video went viral on social media, sparking widespread anger and sympathy.
The costs of zero-Covid have also played out in smaller cities or counties that received far less media or public attention.
Daqing, a city of 2.7 million residents known for its oil fields in northeastern Heilongjiang province, has also locked down major districts after reporting hundreds of cases last week.
The restrictions drew little attention until Friday, when Su Guangyu, a 27-year-old resident, posted online that his pregnant wife miscarried after being denied medical care due to the lockdown. Following an online outcry, Daqing authorities said in a statement Saturday they would “thoroughly investigate” the case.
In the western region of Xinjiang, some residents in Yining county have taken to social media to call for an end to the month-long lockdown, which has led to shortages of food and other daily necessities, according to their posts.
And in the central metropolis of Wuhan, the original epicenter of the pandemic that imposed the world’s first Covid lockdown, residents in the Panlongcheng residential community staged a protest over the weekend, demanding authorities lift their week-long lockdown, according to social media footage.
While initially supportive of the zero-tolerance approach, a growing part of the Chinese public has become increasingly frustrated with the unending restrictions on their daily life, as well as the devastating blow to the economy.
But Huang at the Council on Foreign Relations said so far, the social discontent remains manageable for the state.
“It has not reached a tipping point yet. The majority of people are still swayed by the government narrative on the necessity of zero-Covid,” he said, citing entrenched fears toward the virus and its long-term health impacts.
Huang said the 20th Party Congress could open up a “political window for a potential policy shift” away from zero-Covid, but any change is likely to come in an incremental approach.
“Expectations for a major policy shift after the congress could be wishful thinking,” he said.