Was China’s Zero Covid a system of political control?

Was China’s Zero Covid a system of political control?
The easing of brutal Covid restrictions in China will not abate the government’s repression of workers and minorities, argues Liam Kennedy.
5 min read
08 Dec, 2022
Following protests in China, a rally in New York demanded that all arrested Chinese protesters be released from custody, calling for the reinstatement of all civil liberties prescribed by the constitution of the Peoples’ Republic of China. [GETTY]

In the run up to the 20th Chinese Community Party (CCP) congress in October, a lone protestor at Sitong Bridge in Beijing lit a fire and unfurled two banners. “We want food, not PCR tests. We want freedom, not lockdowns”, demanded the first. While the activist, later identified as Peng Lifa, quickly disappeared into the clutches of Chinese security forces, his actions sparked a wave of anti-Xi commentary across Chinese social media and universities around the world.

Yet the CCP machinery appeared to move on. Or, at least, at first. The congress granted Xi an unprecedented third term as leader and, in a move out of kilter with the rest of the world, re-doubled the CCP’s commitment to zero Covid. Then, on 24 November 2022, a fire broke out at a residential home in Urumchi, killing at least 10 people. Eye witnesses reported that emergency services took hours to reach the scene due to the city’s draconian zero Covid infrastructure.

Within hours of the fire protests erupted across the city, calling for an end to lockdowns that saw citizens trapped in their own homes for over 100 days or forced to quarantine in government facilities. Similar protests spread across the country in the largest demonstrations against the state since the massacre at Tiananmen Square in 1989.

''The Chinese state has long honed their craft on racialised and vulnerable populations – the Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang and migrant workers in Zhengzhou, for instance. It is no coincidence that the Urumchi fire took place in the capital of China’s “Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Zone”, killing mostly Uyghur victims.''

The protests represent a momentous juncture in recent Chinese history, questioning the iron rule of Xi and his zero Covid apparatus. In response to the people’s demands, the CCP issued a 10 point directive in early December that permitted quarantine at home and eased inter-city and regional travel restrictions.

Control for the CCP

While three years of zero Covid is now coming to an end, concerns remain about China’s fragile healthcare systems and unvaccinated elderly population. Data shows that growth in medical resources such as the number of medical workers and critical care beds was much lower in 2021 than pre-pandemic years. Zero Covid wasn’t then a pretext for preparing healthcare systems, it was ultimately a system of political control.

Of course, these systems of control far pre-date the imposition of zero Covid. The Chinese state has long honed their craft on racialised and vulnerable populations – the Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang and migrant workers in Zhengzhou, for instance. It is no coincidence that the Urumchi fire took place in the capital of China’s “Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Zone”, killing mostly Uyghur victims.

It is undeniable that up against the blanket repression of Chinese state surveillance, the Sitong Bridge and lockdown protests are remarkable feats of political resistance. Yet even this level of scant political agency is off limits to China’s Uyghur population, who remain overwhelmingly imprisoned in camps or are unable to protest for fear of being labelled ‘terrorists’ or ‘separatists’.

While much media commentary celebrates the lifting of Covid restrictions as restoring basic civic liberties to the Chinese population, it is worth re-iterating that this restoration remains very much within the framework of the CCP’s authoritarian rule and is only extended to certain ethnic groups. As one drone reportedly told quarantined residents during Shanghai’s enforced lockdown, China’s marginalised groups must continue to “control [their] soul’s desire for freedom.”

Control for capital

In October, social media also circulated dramatic footage of Foxconn workers in Zhengzhou fleeing their workplaces, jumping over factory walls, and embarking on lengthy journeys to their homes. Foxconn which supplies Apple with cheap labour for iPhone production is notorious for exploitation: a spate of worker suicides in Shenzhen received global media attention in 2010.

Conditions are still described as “brutally exploitative”, with local students often forced to “intern” at factories as part of their education .

With global trade bouncing back rapidly from the pandemic (China’s trade with the USA increased by 25% in 2021), Apple’s insatiable demand for products collided with the zero Covid mantra of the CCP to create a perfect storm of misery in Foxconn factories. Workers were required to enter factories and stay there – eating, working and sleeping within the walls of Foxconn complexes. This system became known as “the closed loop”, a process whereby human mobility and freedom is entirely subservient to the continued flow of goods and capital.

In early November, rumours of eight workers dying as a result of a Covid outbreak triggered a mass exodus. The subsequent labour shortage put pressure on both Foxconn (from parent company Apple) and the Henan government, which is heavily reliant on Foxconn. The company’s production accounts for over 80% of Zhengzhou’s exports and more than 60% of exports for the entire Henan province. Promising higher wages and then paying workers the standard Foxconn rate (barely above the local minimum wage) led to further worker protests in November.

Despite all this, Foxconn expects full production levels to resume from late December to early January and the company is looking to export its model of labour exploitation in China (where costs are rising) to other areas across Asia.

A day of action has been called for 10th December to highlight Apple’s ongoing complicity in labour rights abuses across the globe.

All of this brings us back to Peng Lifa. His second banner on Sitong Bridge implored the public to “strike at school, strike at work [and] oust the dictator Xi Jinping”. His demands acknowledge that the CCP is a regime that, in the words of academic Yige Dong, is nothing more than a “state-sanctioned mode of ruthless capital accumulation.”

The transition away from zero Covid as a result of popular dissent is worth celebrating. Yet the overall edifice of oppression under the guise of “socialism with Chinese characteristics” (which for all intents and purposes is authoritarian state capitalism) remains intact. Its disproportionate impact on racialised minorities and exploited workers needs dismantling.

As the global day of action will make clear, the world’s largest corporations are complicit in this system. Don’t let them forget it.

Liam Kennedy is a researcher at the Communication Workers Union (CWU) and an editor at Red Pepper magazine.

Follow him on Twitter: @liamkennedy_

Have questions or comments? Email us at: editorial-english@alaraby.co.uk.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.