The port city is China's most international and cosmopolitan, which helps explain the ongoing culture clash between its residents and Chinese authorities aiming to enforce a strict Zero-Covid policy of restrictions on movement and freedom.
Shanghai, a metropolis of 25 million inhabitants with a rich and colorful history, stands apart in China.
The southern port boasts the most international and cosmopolitan population on mainland China, where commercial wealth and relative personal freedom meet. The natives of Shanghai are often chided by other Chinese as the nation's "bourgeois" class.
Through the first two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, which had first spread around the world from Wuhan — another Chinese mega-city some 500 miles to the west — Shanghai had largely been spared from its effects, with local administrations being praised for “precise epidemic prevention.”
All that has changed over the past month. Both its special status and previous success in keeping the virus at bay help explain the crisis engulfing the city over the past month. With the sudden spread of the Omicron variant, a strict lockdown has been in force since March 28. And locals are pushing the limits in what is, despite local attitudes, an authoritarian regime in China.
For most Shanghai residents, the gravity of the current situation has been less about the alarming number of infections (as of Friday, there are a little more than 17,000 confirmed cases and seven deaths), and more focused on the frustration and rising acts of disobedience in the face of the harsh lockdowns of the government's Zero-COVID policy.
"Control your soul's desire for freedom"
In recent days, reports — though not yet confirmed by reliable sources — have circulated, echoing the tension at play in the city's COVID outbreak: On the Weibo social network, a video was posted that shows the light of a drone above a Shanghai neighborhood on April 5, broadcasting a female voice telling residents to "control your soul's desire for freedom."
This came after Shanghai’s citywide lockdown prompted residents in the neighborhood to shout from their windows that they were running out of food and basic necessities.
Indeed, the continuing Zero-COVID strategy has caused high levels of anxiety — and worse — for a bourgeois population used to living a comfortable urban life. It has also shownthe frightening power of China's bureaucracy and its dreadful consequences: patients of other illnesses that could only be treated if in possession of negative PCR test results, leading to tragic and unnecessary deaths; COVID-positive children separated from their parents in isolation, with officials authorizing parents to accompany their children only if they, too, were infected; pets in COVID-hit households that got beaten to death, etc.
Residents shouted from their windows that they were running out of food and basic necessities.
Discontent and disillusion are growing in Shanghai. The current climate of fear in the metropolis lead a correspondent for The Initium to ask himself: “Will I be separated from my family tomorrow? Will I be able to buy groceries tomorrow? What will happen to my children and pets if I am sent to a COVID-only hospital? It's 2022, what kind of life is this?!”
Volunteers transport vegetable in an agricultural products distribution center in Shanghai
Shanghai's Dilemma: A Political One
Despite the ongoing issues, China insists that its Zero-COVID strategy is the right approach, although voices of dissidents are growing louder even within the central government. On April 2, a recording of a conversation between a Shanghai citizen and a governmental pandemic control expert was widely circulated on social media. The expert expressed her frustrations that in the course of her work she had devised many contingency plans, recommending home isolation for patients with mild asymptomatic illnesses, but "no one is listening to what the professionals are saying. Now the pandemic has become a political one, and so many resources and money are being spent on a disease like the flu.”
The recording was released to the public with the expert’s consent, but superior administrations soon declared that “experts were not allowed to express their opinions in inquiries.”
Shanghai's dilemma creates a livelihood issue as well as a political issue.
Up to this point, some districts in Shanghai were allowed to lift restrictions once COVID cases dropped, although the Zero-COVID strategy remains as strict as ever. Complaints are shared on the internet — but many also get censored, while authorities still ask people to be "grateful". A special TV gala for those "combating the epidemic" was planned to be aired on April 13, but was canceled after an online call to boycott it.
As Zongcheng, a Shanghai-based writer, puts it, "Being a mixture of socialism, state capitalism and market economy, Shanghai's dilemma creates a livelihood issue as well as a political issue."
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