The world’s harshest Covid restrictions exemplify how Xi Jinping’s authoritarian excesses have rewritten Beijing’s longstanding social contract with its people.
The narrow alleyways of Haizhu district have long beckoned to China’s strivers, people like Xie Pan, a textile worker from a mountainous tea-growing area in central China.
Home to one of the country’s biggest fabric markets, Haizhu houses worker dormitories and textile factories in brightly colored buildings stacked so close that neighbors can shake hands out their windows. Once a smattering of rural villages, the area became a manufacturing hub as China opened its economy decades ago. The government had promised to step back and let people unleash their ambitions, and millions flocked to Haizhu to do just that.
Mr. Xie made the hopeful journey last year, joining others from Hubei Province who had also settled in this dense pocket of the southern metropolis of Guangzhou. They toiled in cacophonous factories, peddled cloth or sold sesame noodles, a hometown favorite. But when I met him a few months ago, his hope had dimmed. Because of a slowing economy, he had been homeless for two weeks before stringing together money to rent a 100-square-foot room for $120 a month.
“There isn’t enough work for everyone,” Mr. Xie, 31, a soft-spoken man with hunched shoulders from years bent over sewing machines, said then. “You can’t go to bed every night having to look for work in the morning. It’s too tiring.”
It would get much worse, after a strict Covid lockdown silenced the factories and shuttered the noodle shops. In October, Mr. Xie was quarantined for nearly a month.
Several weeks later, Haizhu exploded in discontent. After a weekend of protests against “zero Covid” restrictions across the country, hundreds of workers defied lockdown rules and swarmed Haizhu’s streets on Tuesday, demanding freedom. They tore down street barricades and threw glass bottles. “End the lockdown!” they shouted as police officers in hazmat suits marched through the alleys, banging clubs against their shields.
The eruption was a forceful illustration of how thoroughly the world’s toughest pandemic restrictions have upended life in China. Xi Jinping, the country’s strongman leader, is expanding the Chinese Communist Party’s grip over its people beyond what even Mao Zedong attained. Mr. Xi has tied the success of “zero Covid” to his own legitimacy as ruler, and enforcing it has taken precedence over nurturing the freewheeling spirit that made Haizhu, and China, so vibrant.
The shift strikes at the party’s longstanding social contract with its people. After violently crushing pro-democracy demonstrations at Tiananmen Square in 1989, Beijing struck an implicit bargain: In exchange for limitations on political freedoms, the people would get stability and comfort.
But now the stability and comfort have dwindled, even as the limitations have grown. Nearly 530 million people — almost 40 percent of the population — were under some form of lockdown in late November, according to one estimate. People have died because of delayed medical care, or gone hungry.
Already, China’s security apparatus is moving to suppress the demonstrations against “zero Covid,” the most widespread protests China has seen since Tiananmen. The police have detained and threatened participants across the country. The government, while not publicly acknowledging the protests, has also tried to blunt public outrage by easing restrictions, including lifting some lockdowns in Guangzhou.
Even if Mr. Xi drives discontent back underground, the disillusionment that the protests exposed may remain. “Zero Covid” made clear the ease, and apparent arbitrariness, with which the party could and would impose its will on people. For many Chinese, such dominance has shaken their expectation of constant progress, and chipped away at their ambition and willingness to take risks.
Perhaps nowhere will this shift play out more poignantly than in the biggest metropolises of southern China: Guangzhou and neighboring Shenzhen. It was here where China’s market reforms first took off. A colleague and I spent two weeks in the region earlier this year, to see how the changing social contract has fueled frustration, resignation and anxiety — feelings starkly at odds with the triumphalist vision of national rejuvenation that Mr. Xi has promoted.
Understand the Protests in China
- The Toll of ‘Zero Covid’: The protests come as President Xi Jinping’s harsh pandemic policies have hurt businesses and strangled growth. The Daily looks at what the demonstrations could mean for Mr. Xi.
- A Roar of Discontent: The protests have awoken a tradition of dissent that had seemed spent after 10 years under Mr. Xi. The effects may far outlast the street clashes.
- The Economic Fallout: The unrest in the world’s biggest manufacturing nation is injecting a new element of uncertainty and instability into the global economy.
- Facing Long Odds: The protesters in China hope to bring sweeping change, but three major forces stand in their way, our columnist writes.
Mr. Xie was released from quarantine last month, before the recent clashes. He fled Guangzhou, unsure whether he would return. “This place — if I can avoid it, I will.”
A Fading Promise
At the heart of the region’s appeal was its promise of something for everyone. There were factories for rural migrants, technology powerhouses for aspiring coders, storefronts for entrepreneurs. Anyone could trade grit and drive for a better life.
Mr. Xie moved to Guangzhou last year, chasing higher pay to support his two young children. But when he arrived, he found a different hustle than expected.
Many factories had cut back as the slowing economy and lockdowns choked demand for new clothing. Each morning, Mr. Xie elbowed through nearly standstill crowds of job seekers to haggle with factory bosses over ever-lower rates for piecework, like finishing the hems on a shirt, or the pleats on a skirt. In August, he earned $40 to $50 a day — he had heard that people earned double that before the pandemic — on the days he earned anything.
At work, he hastily swallowed lunches of white rice and tofu, surrounded by knee-high piles of fabric and the drone of sewing machines.
Then, in October, the coronavirus began spreading in Haizhu, as did lockdowns. Confined to his room, then to a quarantine center, Mr. Xie’s money dried up.
The morning he was released, he boarded a train back to Hubei. “I’ve been out of work for so long, I’m about to go hungry,” Mr. Xie said when reached at home.
It’s not just in factories that upward mobility seems increasingly out of reach. The same is true in the region’s skyscrapers, once the gleaming proofs of dreams achieved.
Before the pandemic, Ryan Liu embodied the promise of his hometown, Shenzhen. After growing up in a working-class family, Mr. Liu, 34, became a product manager at one of China’s internet giants. He collected whiskey and vacationed abroad, savoring the high-flying lifestyle that China’s modernization made possible.
But “zero Covid” bowed even China’s internet giants. The e-commerce titan Alibaba reported a net loss of nearly $3 billion last quarter, in part because of weak consumer demand. Tencent, China’s most valuable company, laid off thousands of employees this year, the first time in nearly a decade that its work force had shrunk.
The comfortable life that Mr. Liu had built for himself suddenly seemed precarious. He had started reading job postings to be safe, he said over a protein bowl near his office in Shenzhen’s Hi-Tech Industrial Park where high-rises offer amenities like karaoke pods and indoor running tracks. He stopped buying whiskey and sold his stock investments.
Mr. Liu was now focused on paying off his mortgage and building his savings. “The next few years,” he said, “will also be pretty hard.”
‘The State Is Everywhere’
The sound of construction began immediately after officials detected a lone case of Covid in Xiasha, a dense Shenzhen neighborhood known for its cheap eats and affordable housing. That afternoon, workers hauled sheets of metal and red plastic to erect barriers preventing anyone from leaving — a physical manifestation of the party’s increasingly overt control over daily life.
“Even jail isn’t like that,” said Wu Qunlin, 56, who runs a massage parlor here, recalling the two-week barricade in July — his second lockdown this year.
Even after the walls came down, the intrusions remained. Covid tests were required every 24 hours. People entering the neighborhood had to show proof of residence. Officials monitored people’s movements via their cellphones.
The mobilization of so many hyperlocal officials — one state media report estimated that one had been deployed for every 250 adults — represents “possibly the largest expansion of Chinese state capacity in the past 40 years,” said Taisu Zhang, a law professor at Yale who studies China. “It used to be, for most people you didn’t really feel the state in your daily life too much. Now, of course, the state is everywhere.”
Officials even entered apartments in Xiasha, checking closets and under beds for people with Covid who might have been trying to avoid detection.
Mr. Wu, who opened his business 20 years ago, said he had done his best to cooperate with the Covid measures. He took daily tests. He got vaccinated. Yet there he was, sitting in a mostly dark alley, reeling off the neighboring shops — a photography studio, another massage parlor — that had gone out of business. Only one customer had come by that evening, to ask about prices (about $21 for a standard massage), but ultimately walked away.
“You’ve managed us before, that’s the function of the state,” Mr. Wu said. But, “it’s like if your parents tried to control you too much — you’d feel uncomfortable. And if you didn’t do anything about it, you’d also feel uncomfortable, right?”
The question facing “zero Covid” is this: Now that people are expressing their dissatisfaction, what comes next?
The protests that erupted over the past week were rooted in the stringent coronavirus policies, but some protesters expanded their demands to more directly confront the party’s reassertion of power. In Beijing, Shanghai and elsewhere, they chanted for democracy, freedom of speech, an end to the authoritarianism that had enabled “zero Covid” in the first place.
But the security apparatus has grown only stronger from the past three years of controls. It is also not clear how many of the protesters share the demands, or the aspiration, for more political freedom; the angry workers in Guangzhou were focused on the basic right to work and move freely. If China manages to limit the impact of future outbreaks as it loosens restrictions, the sense of shared grievance could sputter.
Still, even if “zero Covid” goes away, Mr. Xi’s broader fixation on control is unlikely to do the same. In that environment, it remains to be seen whether the ambition that fueled China’s rise can still thrive.
That ambition drove Li Hong, 36, to take over a clothing factory last year in Haizhu. Since arriving from Hubei 16 years ago, Ms. Li had worked her way from the factory floor to management, and she was hungry to keep advancing and betting on herself. She knew the economy was shaky, but with so many factories going under, she could get one at a good price.
“Opportunities come to those who are prepared, but even if there aren’t opportunities, we want to go find them,” she said this summer in her small back office, where she kept a couch for naps during long shifts.
But this spring’s lockdown in Shanghai cut off orders from a major client there. Then came the Guangzhou outbreak. Factories in Haizhu were ordered to close. Ms. Li tested positive and was sent to a makeshift hospital.
After being released two weeks later, she returned to Hubei because her home in Guangzhou home was sealed off, she said by phone. Her factory lease expires in January; she did not know if she would renew.
She had always considered herself a go getter, especially in a world where female factory bosses are rare. But she knew that individual drive went only so far. Even after Guangzhou eased restrictions after the protests, she worried that local officials were merely trying to avoid more bad publicity, not listening to people’s demands.
“They won’t make decisions based on what you want,” Ms. Li said. Ultimately, she was resigned: “They set the policies the way they want, and I’ll do whatever other people do.”
The reining in of expectations is perhaps best encapsulated by a phrase ubiquitous in China’s Covid restrictions: “Unless necessary.” Officials have instructed citizens: Do not gather “unless necessary,” do not leave home “unless necessary.” Many Chinese who had learned to dream of progress — even luxury — suddenly have been told, again, to expect only the essentials.
Still, some hold onto hope that the retreat is a blip. For all the present difficulties, the years of extraordinary growth are still fresh in many minds.
Atop a hill in Shenzhen’s Lianhuashan Park stands a 20-foot bronze statue of Deng Xiaoping. Mr. Deng, the leader who pioneered China’s embrace of market forces after Mao’s death, watches over the city that is a living reminder of the country’s ability to change direction. Mr. Deng is shown in midstride, to honor his credo that opening should only accelerate.
Chen Chengzhi, 80, a retired government cadre who hikes to that statue every day for exercise, credits Mr. Deng with changing his life. Mr. Chen moved to Shenzhen in the 1980s, soon after Mr. Deng allowed economic experimentation here. The city then had just a few hundred thousand people, but Mr. Chen, who had endured famine and the Cultural Revolution, believed in Mr. Deng’s vision.
“At the end of the day, all good things in China are related to Shenzhen,” Mr. Chen said on one of his daily walks, adding that he cheered when China’s premier, Li Keqiang, visited the statue in August and pledged that China would continue opening to the world.
If it doesn’t do so, Mr. Chen said, “China will hit a dead end.”
But Mr. Li is retiring, even as the Xi Jinping era of rising state control stretches on.
For now, Mr. Chen continues climbing the hill — looking over the city that he helped build, that he believes in still.
Li You contributed research.