China masses take Covid fight into own hands as Xi sits back

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LEFT to fend for herself after China abruptly ended the world’s strictest Covid restrictions, 31-year-old Share Xue and her daughter found themselves with 40°C (104°F) fevers and an expired bottle of Motrin.

“I didn’t think it would be that difficult to get drugs,” she said from the southern city of Guangzhou, recalling how she had expected the government to take charge and give out medicine during her illness last month. With hospitals overwhelmed, she turned to social media instead—and found an app on WeChat facilitating donations to those in need.

About an hour after detailing her situation, a stranger called offering two free Covid-19 test kits. Thirty minutes later, a woman who had just recovered from Covid told her she could send two ibuprofen pills.

“This is the first time I really felt the warmth of people helping one another,” Xue said. “I will teach my child to do the same.”

For 1.4 billion Chinese citizens that had the government dictate their movements since the pandemic began, the past six weeks have forced them to suddenly figure out how to survive on their own.

President Xi Jinping asked the public at the beginning of 2023 to “make an extra effort to pull through” the virus wave, and state media urged people to “take primary responsibility for their own health.”

Dawn is just ahead–Xi

ON Wednesday, ahead of Lunar New Year, Xi acknowledged the current outbreak had been “fierce” while noting “dawn is just ahead.” He called on local officials in rural areas in particular to improve medical care and protect people’s health.

But for many on the ground who suffered through Covid with no help, those calls ring hollow. The traumatic experiences risk upending the social contract that underpins the Communist Party’s legitimacy: An acceptance of one-party rule in return for competent governance that keeps people safe and improves their lives.

Instead, citizens are now gaining real-world experience in effectively living without the party.

“Frustrated citizens feel that they have been jerked 180 degrees from tightly patrolled Zero Covid society to fending for themselves in a viral jungle,” said Diana Fu, associate professor of political science at the University of Toronto. “It has become evident that people are serving the people, not the party serving the people.”

U-turn on Covid Zero

CHAOS initially broke out after China’s dramatic U-turn on Covid Zero, which came swiftly after spontaneous anti-lockdown protests. People scrambled to get medicine, hospitals overflowed with infected patients, and crematoriums became overwhelmed with bodies.

The government released national guidance on self-quarantine and treatment, and some local authorities handed out medicine to the elderly. But officials failed to provide much clarity on Covid data or mobilize national resources to ease shortages.

As authorities dragged their feet on an effective Covid response, grassroots groups and companies have played a prominent role. They rolled out initiatives coordinating medicine supplies, offering health advice, providing data on the health-care situation and even reaching out to often-neglected rural areas.

The WeChat app for medicine donation had several million visits and more than 800,000 posts immediately after its launch on December 19. The Campaign to Bring Down Fever in Villages, an online initiative to collect donated ibuprofen, said it mailed drugs to about 13,000 elderly residents in 110 villages as of December 29 after family members signed them up via a Weibo post. NCP Relief, a grassroots group founded during the initial Wuhan outbreak, provides data on hospital bed availability in major cities including Beijing and Shanghai.

‘Very bad look’

“THE government was very present in the Zero-Covid phase — now that people are getting infected, it’s not being helpful,” said Hanzhang Liu, an assistant professor at Pitzer College who specializes in Chinese politics. “It’s a very bad look. I don’t think this episode has done any favor to the government in terms of public support.”

After the cases appeared to peak in some parts of the country, the state has in recent days moved to more actively address the resource crunch, supplying each village clinic with two oximeters financed by Alibaba Group Holding Ltd., and each town hospital with one oxygen concentrator. The government vowed Monday to “optimize disbursement of fiscal funds” and to set up a dedicated channel to expedite official purchases of Covid and medical goods.

The resurgence of civil society has come despite an earlier crackdown from Xi, who has long feared that grassroots organizations could turn rogue and start pressing the government for political demands. Shortly after he took power in 2013, Xi declared civil society a danger to the party-state, along with Western democracy and media freedom.

The flurry of grassroots action is reminiscent of the initial Covid outbreak in Wuhan, when the state roped in the public to supply medical resources and funds. This time around, however, local bodies are leading the way as the government has taken a step back, according to Bertram Lang, a research associate in political science at Goethe University Frankfurt.

“This kind of spontaneity is definitely worth noting,” he said. “From the government’s perspective, being spontaneous is inherently dangerous.”

State media has ramped up rhetoric defending China’s Covid response, with the People’s Daily—the Communist Party’s official mouthpiece—saying in an editorial Thursday the government has taken “strong and effective measures with the trust and full support of the people.”

It has also prominently featured stories of acts of kindness among ordinary people, such as a Weibo post about a man in eastern Shandong province delivering medicines to more than 1,000 people.

But people don’t seem impressed. Under the People’s Daily post, the top comment asked: “Shouldn’t you reflect on why the citizens are helping each other out?”

Jiangguo, a student in Beijing, began volunteering for a grassroots organization dedicated to Covid relief efforts once the situation became dire. She calls up hospitals in the capital to check if they have free beds, then feeds the information into an online spreadsheet maintained by the group.

Like many of her peers, she is questioning the government’s response—reflecting a wider loss of confidence in the Communist Party that could have consequences for years to come.

“It was just too quick and too sudden,” Jiangguo said of the abrupt U-turn in Covid controls. “Which inevitably makes me think: Why didn’t the government tell the public in advance to let us prepare first?”

Image credits: AP/Andy Wong