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China restarts economy – and protest stirs

Updated: Mar 28, 2020

by John Lucas

The country where we first saw the Covid19 epidemic take hold is now the country the world is looking to for hope of the aftermath. Much of the credit is often given to the repressive powers of the Chinese state, which locked down tens of millions of people under effective house arrest to stop transmission. But in reality, China’s recovery is fragile, halting and contested—and the harsh lockdowns may have done as much harm as good.

There are certainly signs of a return to normal. The authorities have reported several days with no new locally transmitted cases of the disease. China is now on a diplomatic offensive to export its new coronavirus expertise as aid, including doing more for beleaguered Italy than the European Union has.

Officials in Shanghai are urging residents to visit the zoo, and many provinces plan to reopen the schools in the coming weeks. Air pollution from factories and traffic is creeping back up after plummeting by a third. There has even been a small revival of protests, as people who have been trapped indoors for weeks with no income find their anger bubbling over at the same time as the fear of going outside begins to abate.

Hundreds of residents of one community in Yingcheng, near Wuhan, defied the lockdown last week in a protest over prices. The demonstration began after a neighbor was arrested for selling food cheaper than the government-approved vendors. He was released an hour later, and the city government announced it would relax restrictions on food sales.

Around China, there have been demonstrations demanding rent cuts, the payment of unpaid wages and other urgent demands. China Labour Bulletin had counted 25 incidents as of last week. Shockingly, these included protests by some of the health workers who fought the epidemic and the construction workers who wowed the world by building a hospital in ten days—who hadn’t paid their wages. As an economic crisis sets in, these could be the shape of things to come.

In Wuhan, the city hit first and hit hardest by Covid19, fireworks have been set off and some checkpoints lifted after a run of days with no new cases. But movement in and out of the city is still blocked, and many are skeptical. Wuhan resident Wen Ji told the South China Morning Post, “I don’t believe this number – I think it’s safer to keep staying at home,” she said. A joke circulating online goes that “we know we’re healthy, they know we’re healthy … but no one is brave enough to let us leave”.

The past two months have been tough even for those not directly affected by the virus. In some cities the lockdown extended to only letting one person per household outdoors every other day, or no-one without a permit, enforced by building managers and volunteers.

This came at a heavy cost, stopping people taking measures from taking a short, socially-distanced walk to maintain mental and physical health to fleeing an abusive relationship or helping neighbours and relatives. Yan Cheng, a teenager with cerebral palsy, died after being left without adequate care for a week while his relatives were in quarantine. A spike in divorce claims made a fun news story, but no-one is measuring the rates of mental distress or domestic violence.

Was it worth it? The Chinese government’s claims are echoed in the West even by some whose initial response to the epidemic was to stoke sinophobic paranoia and racism. The opportunity to clamp down on civil liberties has crowded out much talk of, for example, the crucial role of mass testing and symptom-monitoring.

But it’s easy to forget that the dramatic and rapid shutdown initial shutdown of China in late January was triggered by the New Year holiday, not the authorities. By the time the government acted, every household was already anxiously reconsidering the return to work or school.

And the same authorities that isolated people in their homes often connived with the employers to bring them together at work—under pressure from the bosses, and in the face of entirely logical reluctance from workers. One example was “employee-sharing”—firms that had been forced to shut down, such as hotels, clubs and restaurants, were authorized to lend their workers out like chattel to factories and warehouses whose own workforce hadn’t come back.

In any case, it’s an illusion to think that the lockdown could ever be so total that it eliminated possibilities for contagion. Cities don’t run themselves, and some workers have had to keep everything turning—from delivery couriers keeping people fed to cleaners, health workers and construction workers. In many cases these have been denied adequate protection and exhausted through long working hours, putting them at additional risk.

Of course the state had a responsibility to limit contagion. But doing this through repressive means robbed people of their agency of the chance to do anything about the crisis themselves. For Guo Jing, a feminist activist in Wuhan who was part of organizing the collection and distribution of supplies, the result was a “political depression” for which some degree of activism was the only cure.

In an interview, Guo pointed to the “frequent banning of certain topics on social media platforms, or censorship of information during the epidemic”. “People with power and resources lock down the information, but those people failed to fulfill their duties,” she said. “They are actually hindering the relief work. In such circumstances, of course we feel helpless.”

The public response to the death by Covid19 of Li Wenliang, a doctor and the most prominent of eight whistleblowers arrested in January, was one sign of the resentment this has provoked. Another came when vice premier Sun Chunlan inspected an estate in Wuhan for a press opportunity two weeks ago, showing how well the locked-down residents were being looked after. She was heckled, “It’s all fake”.

Noting that even the first roadblocks were erected at local initiative, retrospectively rubber-stamped from above, an article in communist journal Chuang describes the experience of the shutdown as a very passive—yet powerful—kind of mass strike. Conversely, the authoritarian response can be seen at least in part as a “counterinsurgency” to regain control. Perhaps we can even see in the back-to-work drives a kind of strike-breaking.

It’s common sense that authoritarian rule gets things done, that efficiency requires brutality. The practice can be more like the version of Joseph Stalin portrayed in Victor Serge’s novel The Case of Comrade Tulayev—a leader so surrounded by yes-men terrified to give bad news that no-one has a clear idea of what is really happening.

China’s leader Xi Jinping has overseen a turn towards more authoritarian government. But he stands at the top of a pyramid of municipal and provincial bureaucrats, torn between competing for prestige and keeping their heads down to avoid the next purge. It’s not a recipe for decisive action, effective coordination or transparency, as different provinces and cities see who can lock down hardest, or return to work fastest.

In the crucial early weeks of the epidemic, the Wuhan police’s arrest of the eight whistleblowers for “spreading rumours” about a new disease completely undermined the government’s attempts to learn the lessons of the 2003 SARS epidemic, which was given time to fester by a cover-up. The Wuhan authorities were slapped down with a supreme court ruling noting that, “It might have been a fortunate thing if the public had believed the ‘rumour’ then and started to wear masks and carry out sanitisation measures”. But the damage was done.

Now China’s rulers are caught between two contradictory pressures—to get production back up and avoid a return of the virus. The latter is a very real threat. This week’s official figures saw the first new local transmission of the disease after a four-day run, as well as dozens of cases among the people returning to China from overseas.

The official focus has shifted to stopping infection from outside. Many who went abroad for the New Year holiday have still been unable to return—and are being encouraged not to rush back now. Airlines have been leant on to provide fewer flights, and passengers deterred with measures such as charging them for their own mandatory quarantine in a hotel. There has also been a rise in anti-foreigner sentiment online.

But there’s no way to guarantee the virus has been fully eliminated within China’s borders, let alone that it can be kept out at the airports. Bringing people back into schools and workplaces is necessarily a risk. And any real back-to-normal will bringing back to China’s cities the migrant workers who went home for the New Year holiday—meaning a new mass exodus across the country.

And the factors that made China vulnerable to epidemic haven’t gone away. Health care is under resourced and expensive—even coronavirus treatments were only made free after the unnecessary deaths of patients who couldn’t afford them. A lack of workplace rights has created a culture of presenteeism where even sick workers are expected to go in. And of course, unregulated food production created the conditions for the virus’s emergence.

Meanwhile the economic consequences of the shutdown could pit the workers who have weathered this passive strike into a more active fight for their livelihoods. In this, too, China is going where the rest of the world will soon follow. Learning the right lessons means standing with those workers—and being very skeptical of the claims of authoritarian government.

John Lucas is an English teacher and former journalist based in China. He has written this article especially for theleftberlin.com

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