China’s Flirtation with “Let ‘Er Rip” Goes Hard Into Reverse with Shanghai Two-Phase Lockdown

Only a few days ago, the Western press was almost preening over the idea that first the big Covid wave in Hong Kong and then a Covid spike in Shanghai which was initially met only limited, building-level lockdowns in Shanghai meant that China was falling in with the rest of the world’s “learning to live with Covid” approach, which is tantamount to “putting commerce over lives”.

China had already locked down Shenzhen, a tech center of 17.5 million people, for six days starting March 14. The Shenzhen action was successful, with the city getting its cases down to a mere four, small enough to be handled by contact tracing. Even so, while manufacturing plants reopened on the 21st, many restrictions remain.

In Shanghai, the local government attempted to avoid large-scale lockdowns via subjecting clusters of building complexes to 48 hour lockdowns with two mandatory tests for everyone, but that apparently exposed that infection levels were what China deemed to be unacceptably high. From the South China Morning Post:

Despite previous assurances Shanghai would not be locked down, zones east and west of the Huangpu River will be restricted separately in two-stage plan

On Monday, China logged 1,219 local confirmed cases and 4,996 local asymptomatic infections

To give a frame of reference, Alabama has just under 5 million people and so is less than 1/5 the size of Shanghai. Compare Shanghai with our winter Covid peak:

The real level in Alabama was almost certainly higher since home tests were getting traction prevalent, and those results not often reported to the officialdom.

Scientist GM explained in mid 2021, by e-mail, why China has a much lower tolerance for Covid than capitalist economies:

I wrote a number of articles since the start of the pandemic, explaining how the old Soviet system — both the healthcare one as designed by N.S. Semashko in the 1920s, the foundational principle of which was prevention of disease and infection, and the overall societal one too — would never have allowed things to unfold as they did over the last 16 months. Transmission would have been stopped at all cost. The residual influence of that is probably a major reason why countries like China, Vietnam and Laos went for elimination from the start (and Cuba too, though they have not been able to control it recently).

I would imagine that the reason Russia and the former Warsaw Pact members are not observing their former priorities is that the horrific conditions after the Soviet Union collapsed set a new, very low baseline, for public health standards. Please read “The Death of a Nation,” embedded at the end of this post, if you haven’t already.

Let us not forget that lockdowns in China make the Western version pale:

People are restricted to their residence. The Republic video suggests they will be allowed out to neighborhood sites to pick up provisions. I would hazard that it applies only to limited areas:

Additional detail from the Financial Times:

Shanghai pushed ahead with a stringent lockdown on Monday that will divide China’s biggest city into two zones, as authorities struggled to stem record coronavirus cases in the country’s most important financial centre.

The government will shut down public transport this week as it conducts mass testing across Pudong, the city’s financial district, located east of the Huangpu river. Similar restrictions will apply from April 1 to the district of Puxi, west of the river.

The measures, which marked the first time authorities in Shanghai have imposed a lockdown that confined residents to their homes, sparked panic-buying across the city as shoppers rushed to stock up on vegetables.

Notice this reversal happened in a mere 48 hours. Shanghai officials had just reaffirmed its plan to stay largely open. From the Guardian:

Shanghai has recorded a sharp rise in Covid-19 cases, but officials have ruled out a full lockdown over the damage it would do to the economy…

Shanghai, however, has aimed to ease disruption with a more targeted approach marked by rolling 48-hour lockdowns of individual neighbourhoods and large-scale testing while largely keeping the metropolis of 25 million people running.

At a daily Shanghai press conference on Saturday, officials alluded to the importance of avoiding a full lockdown of the huge port city.

“If Shanghai, this city of ours, came to a complete halt, there would be many international cargo ships floating in the East China Sea,” said Wu Fan, a medical expert with the city’s pandemic taskforce.

“This would impact the entire national economy and the global economy.”

Shanghai is keeping the port out of full shutdown, but it’s not clear that partial relief there will make much difference to shipping volumes. From Splash 247:

For shipping, congestion at the port – already very high – is expected to increase in the coming days, while overseas, terminals in Europe and North America will have to brace for an even larger whiplash effect when the city regains normal productivity – and comes as global supply chains absorb the fallout from a seven-day lockdown in Shenzhen to the south earlier this month.

The authorities have decided to split Shanghai in half using the Huangpu River for the new two-part lockdown. The city recorded 2,631 new asymptomatic cases on Saturday, which accounted for nearly 60% of China’s total new asymptomatic cases that day, plus 47 new cases with symptoms.

Pudong, the eastern part of the city, is in lockdown from today through to Friday as mass testing gets underway, while the western area, Puxi, will lock down between April 1 and 5.

Public transport will be suspended as will work at most factories. However, essential workers, including port labour, will be exempt from the stay-at-home order.

The Financial Times suggested that President Xi backed favoring the economy more:

President Xi Jinping this month emphasised the need to “minimise the impact” of the virus on the country’s economy after southern tech hub Shenzhen was locked down. In Shanghai, authorities had indicated that a full-scale lockdown was not necessary a few weeks ago, although buildings with positive cases were often sealed off.

However, the Western press has been attacking the China “zero Covid” strategy because it shows that the West’s claims of There Is No Alternative to be hollow. So it’s not clear that one remark by Xi has not been given too much weight. As GM noted:

Regarding the pandemic, not being able to read primary sources, I have had to rely on odds sources here and there for such things, and the resulting very primitive understanding I have is that the Shanghai local powers are somewhat of an opposition to Beijing, probably the largest such center given the importance of Shanghai, and more closely connected to the West too, so in a way it would make sense for them to try to sabotage containment given that Xi has to be reelected later this year and rampant COVID all throughout China is supposed to hurt him big time. And when I think about, most of the local Chinese experts that do talk about letting it rip have been from Shanghai too, which fits such an interpretation. What doesn’t make that much sense is the central government allowing this to happen so readily, and there is of course the alternative interpretation that at this point continuing containment efforts might be seen as a bigger political price to pay, so Xi himself will abandon them. But then there will be at least a million dead in the coming months…

Unfortunately it’s basically impossible to figure out what is going on from English-language sources — most of those outlets are Western-aligned and spent more than a year pressuring Hong Kong to commit mass murder against its elderly, eventually with success, the rest are propaganda outlets who do no reveal anything of substance. And I somehow, despite so many years doing what I do, have never worked sufficiently closely with anyone Chinese to a level where such issues could be discussed, they all immediately deflect any attempts to steer the conversation away from talking about anything internal to China…

The flip side is that Twitter has made much of anti-lockdown protest in Shenzhen:

However, all I have seen so far is two clips, posted many times each, of what may be two separate events. Even so, one shows at most 100 people, for the other the crowd size is bigger but still looks shy of 1000. In other words, the video evidence, which is usually good at over-selling, does not support the claims of large-scale protests.

But if there really is a lot of unhappiness, that’s the result of a messaging failure. How many people in China know that male life expectancy in the US has fallen by over two years during Covid? Or about the prevalence and severity of long Covid and other forms of damage, even from asymptomatic and mild cases? How about the danger of T-cell exhaustion and resulting increased odds of getting cancer? Or that reinfections appear to be more severe?

Michael Pettis, citing the South China Morning Post, highlighted the notion that the big business centers have some ability to defy the central government:

We might have a better guess down the road if the sudden volte face was the result of Xi refining his ideas of the proper tradeoff between public safety and commerce, or if this was a raw power struggle, that Shanghai tried defying Beijing and was slapped down as case counts were discovered to be what the central government thought was unacceptably high.

Either way, this development indicates that China isn’t on board with “Let ‘er rip” and even if it does relax its zero Covid line a bit, its tolerance for contagion will be far lower than what the rest of the world has come to accept.

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  1. GM

    To add about the Soviet system.

    The whole reason we were sentenced to dying of COVID (because this is the ultimate fate of most people alive today without elimination of the virus — the repeated infections will lead to a drastic shortening of life expectancy, even if the immediate cause of death gets recorded as stroke, heart attack, slow wasting due to the sustained overall damage, etc.) is the absolutely screwed up system of capitalism.

    We had to pause the economy to eliminate the virus (nothing new on its own — the economy has been paused to contain countless outbreaks in the past, the only difference in this case was the scale), but we can’t do it without a debt jubilee, and we can’t have a debt jubilee because first, it has been a mortal sin to even discuss that for the last couple millennia (as Michael Hudson has been explaining for many years), second, the financial system would collapse anyway as nobody can actually track the quadrillion-plus dollar or whatever the hell it is in size tangled mess of debt obligations.

    We had to also take from the rich and give to the poor to support the latter for the duration of the elimination program. Can’t have that, the only taking and giving that is allowed is from the poor and to the rich.

    And we had to do wartime mobilization of society to deal with the threat. Can’t have that either, the last time this was done in WWII it took decades to undo the damage caused in terms of getting ideas in people’s heads about doing things for the common good (which usually comes packaged together with some kind of redistribution).

    Meanwhile let’s imagine the Soviets were still around and had to deal with COVID.

    First, there is no tangled mess of debt to collapse. They could pause the economy at any moment, and it would not have been a problem at all. The 5-year plan execution may suffer, but that is a self-imposed restraint, not a real one, there is no serious real material problem.

    Second, the state employed everyone, so it could keep paying people to stay home without any difficulty

    Third, if there was anything the party was good at, it was mobilizing and organizing the population towards large-scale efforts.

    So you would have seen the exact same response as in China today — real lockdowns, everyone who knows how to hold a pipette gets mobilized to run mass PCR testing, and new people get trained very quickly, borders are kept closed and new outbreaks that somehow sneak in get squashed immediately.

    Anyone that doubts that should look at how the last few smallpox outbreaks in Europe were dealt with (they happened to be in the USSR and in Yugoslavia).

    Of course China isn’t communist anymore so they do have a real problem with pausing the economy, but apparently the state is still strong enough to override short-term economic considerations, and the organizational capacity needs no elaboration on, it is nothing short of awe-inspiring.

    But overall you can add COVID and the resulting reduction in life expectancy to the list of “gifts” to humanity that the collapse of the USSR brought, which already included the return to the Gilded Age and the neofeudalization of the world (which have only been made possible by the removal of the ideological alternative).

    If we had a large virus-free expanse covering most of Eurasia from the GDR to Vietnam, it would have been much harder for the rest of the world to convince its population that let-it-rip has no alternative.

    As it is, the Chinese might eventually cave in too and then the last flicker of hope for humanity will be extinguished.

    1. PlutoniumKun

      I think you are broadly correct, although it should be said there are lots of anomalies in the history of public health to make anyone cautious about drawing big conclusions about why some countries are better than others at dealing with public health crises. Its generally true that authoritarian countries (not just left wing ones) see providing basic health care as important for legitimising the centralised State. Even Iraq under Saddam Hussein had a very good basic public health care system. China historically has had a very patchy record on health. The CCP has been pretty good at providing basic healthcare in rural areas (where historically most poor people lived), and very good at controlling parasitic diseases. However, it was very slow to get to grips with Malaria, far behind most other Asian countries, including the KMT run Taiwan.

      I think one reason the Chinese have done so well with Covid is that it is the one country where the system has strong points to match the viruses. The mix of centralised decision making with very localised control has meant that the rules have been followed. In pretty much every apartment block, neighbourhood and village in China you will find a few retired old folks who act as the eyes and ears of the authority. And most people, locals and foreigners, learn pretty quickly that you do what you are told when one of them tells you that you are out of line. They were the perfect tool for ensuring that everyone stayed at home and masked up when they were supposed to. China also had a head start in working out the nature of the virus and was able to react very rapidly (after its initial 6 weeks or so of confusion and errors).

      I think a big failure in the West has been the increased focus on health as a personal issue. We’ve lost the ability to see health in collective terms. Health is about fitness and good lifestyle and going to your doctor in time. Its not about the need for collective action to stomp on highly infectious diseases.

      There is also I think a random element in terms of who is in charge. For decades, Ireland had an appalling problem with TB. Everyone knew what needed to be done to control it, but it wasn’t done – and the medical profession was as guilty of this as the politicians. It was eventually controlled in the 1950’s when one politician (a doctor) simply bashed heads together and made decisions during the summer (when those who might stop him were blissfully away on a beach somewhere). TB might have torn through another generation unnecessarily if it wasn’t for that one man.

  2. Louis Fyne

    Probably taking a cue from Korea.

    Korea let it rip after vax rates hit very high levels.

    20%+ of the population caught Covid even with vaccination and masking and Korea has more Covid deaths in 2022 than pre-2022

  3. Jung

    The most wild thing to me is that an actual lockdown of two weeks in early 2020 in western nations (with more persistent travel restrictions) would have enabled more or less the complete functioning of society over the last two years. This is exactly what China did after having the shock of initial exposure. The western response, and the response coming next winter, doesn’t even make economic sense. How long would it have taken for a (local) two week interruption in supply chains to be mended? How much would interest rates have to be lowered to compensate employers? It’s so idiotic one must almost interpret it as malicious.

  4. megrim

    China’s response to covid is just about the only thing keeping my faith in humanity at all intact these days.

  5. curlydan

    I definitely commend Shanghai for locking down, but I fear that its planned two-stage lockdown may not be a very good solution. If one half of the city is still “open”, that gives the virus 5 more days to circulate in a very large city. Hoping for the best for them. At least they know how to wear masks!

    1. Mikel

      I’d imagine that many on the non-lockdown side would still be masked. They also still have the pollution issues to deal with.
      Here in the USA, mask wearing is treated like the equivalent to lockdown.

  6. The Rev Kev

    Somebody should go check to see if the admin for Shanghai are still with us. It must really stick in a lot of people’s craw how the Chinese so far have fought down this virus time and again. But the crazy thing is that if the Chinese let it rip, then the supply of goods to the west – including critical items – would fall apart and send the rest of the world into yet more chaos. I have to mention this (adjusts tin foil hat) that Australia decided to let the virus run rampant here after fighting it off for two years. And this was right after the G7 Summit in Cornwall, So maybe Scotty from Marketing got the world to let it rip as it was making the G7 nations look bad. And since then nearly 5,000 people have died so, progress?

  7. Dan Lynch

    I’m rooting for China’s zero covid policy because, as long as one industrialized country can control Covid, that proves to the world that it can be done.

    But I am not optimistic. Control techniques that worked on the Wuhan strain may not be good enough for BA2, or for whatever comes after BA2.

    I have zero medical background so I don’t like to say much about Covid, but I will say, and have said all along, that Covid is a hard problem. Time and time again our leaders and even many of our “experts” have underestimated Covid, thought they had it licked, only to have it come back and bite us in the ass. Other than zero-covid, I’m not seeing any viable strategies to tame this monster.

  8. Kathleen Skeels

    I assume that China’s vaccine is not very effective and therefor they are having more trouble controlling Covid infections?

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      Our vaccines do not control infections. You’ve clearly bought into official propaganda. They at most reduce the incidence of severe outcomes.

      And Omicron and BA.2 largely escape them. From IM Doc yesterday on what he is sure is a spike in BA.2 cases:

      17 patients in ER and on the phone so far. All vaccinated and 11 boosted. No unvaxxed. No J&J, though to be fair, that was only about 4% of our vaccines here. 7 of them reportedly had Omicron during the holidays. All are pissed. The vaccine failure displeasure is really beginning to shine. No admissions as of this afternoon.

      The obvious different issue – this appears somewhat worse than Nov-Jan Omicron and the GI symptoms are much more common. Lots of intractable diarrhea and vomiting.

      In the long run, that may greatly intensify admissions if that remains a problem. Dehydration and not eating always makes admissions more likely especially in the elderly and diabetics.

      I do not have a good feeling about this.

      Did you miss that Shanghai locked down mainly over asymptomatic cases, something we don’t even worry about in the West?

      As for the efficacy of China’s vaccines, we’ve made a point of trashing them in the press, when in fact their efficacy at the only thing we measured and publicized, efficacy v. hospitalization, is comparable to the Astra Zeneca two shot regime. China also publicized its data on how its vaccines performed v. preventing infections (IRC only a bit over 50%) and we rubbished them on that, when there’s no evidence ours do one iota better based on that metric.

  9. FDR

    It is my understanding that it is the elderly and those with compromised immune systems that are at risk. Those citizens should quarantine and have administered an Ivermectin cocktail if symptomatic or another prophylactic treatment. As other citizens get Covid they too should be quarantined and receive prophylactic treatments.

    This disease is probably never going away. It is time that we recognize this and move on otherwise it is rinse and repeat.

    This may sound cold-hearted but technology isn’t the answer and socio-economics demands the strong work and the weak are treated humanely as possible.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      You have this 100% wrong. Your disinformation is about as bad as climate change denialism. This is agnotology and a violation of our written site Policies.

      Over 30% of the people who get Covid get long Covid. That includes the young and those who had only asymptomatic cases. Long Covid is debilitating. There is ample evidence of other damage from getting Covid: to the brain (Alzheimer’s level effects on the brain, with 80% of Covid cases tested showing brain inflammation), to the heart, nervous system, kidneys, and of course lungs.

      Every case of Covid also has a T-cell cost. You do not make more T-cells as an adult. T-cell depletion increases the risk of cancer. We are already seeing that confirmed with Covid reinfections nearly always being more severe than initial cases.

      Getting Covid

      1. jwm4

        All of those whom I know to have been reinfected had milder cases the second time. In one of these instances, a couple had Delta twice. All others were Delta followed by Omicron.

        1. Yves Smith Post author

          The plural of anecdote is not data. There are way more people who had symptomatic cases after asymptomatic, which = more severe.

  10. Tom Stone

    I looked at an article in the SF Chronicle today about BA.2 and it was illustrated with a picture of people waiting in line to get boosted.
    There was a nice big sign with a green arrow pointing toward the immunizing clinic.
    That says all I need to know about “Public Health” in the great State of California.

  11. drumlin woodchuckles

    One wonders if Shanghai is a nest of neo-liberals and the ChinaGov central PartyState has decided to go in there and clean out the nest.

    1. PlutoniumKun

      Beijing has always mistrusted Shanghai. Shanghai has always been the least ‘Chinese’ of cities – culturally it was always (along with HK) the most influenced by other Asian cultures and the west, and was always proud of its very distinct dialect (really a different language) and culture. It has always been a free wheeling place where trading with anywhere and everywhere was the norm, and much less culturally conservative than the rest of China. I’ve always suspected that most Shanghainese don’t really see themselves as truly Chinese, they tend to be quite disparaging of anyone not from Shanghai.

      Since the Revolution, Beijing has always ‘kept an eye’ on Beijing and it was well known that being from Shanghai was a huge black mark on your name if you wanted to climb the ranks of the cadres. Of all the major cities, Shanghai was the last one allowed to let rip with capitalism – they weren’t allowed to pursue all out development until the late 1990’s. In typical Shanghai style, they turned it up to 11 and within a decade had left most other Chinese cities in the dust when it came to business, banking and trade. And not just with wealth – Shanghai was the first Chinese city to realise that it had to make the city a good place to live if it was to keep its edge, hence it has retained a liveability that few other Chinese cities can match.

      But that mistrust is still strong, so while the Chinese system is surprisingly devolved in many ways, Shanghai has always been kept on a tighter leash than other cities.

      The received wisdom among the more westernised business elites in China seems to be that zero Covid is a big mistake (they probably really resent not being able to grab flights to visit their children in private schools around the world whenever it is they want). I would guess that this view is particularly strong in Shanghai.

  12. drumlin woodchuckles

    What would the DSA do about this if the DSA had the power, money, numbers and reach? It would try to keep as many people alive and covid-free in the teeth of government efforts to give everybody covid in order to kill the old real fast and kill the young slowly enough to “plausibly” deny that kill-the-young-slowly is the government policy. Which it is.

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