In China, seemingly simple things still pose barriers and blockages.
Taking a train from Shanghai to Beijing was a very easy thing to do. The high-speed rail network here is impressive, both open and international cities very well connected.
But times are still not “normal” here, and this trip is now a kind of business.
We made the trip this week, arriving in Beijing during the 20th Congress of the ruling Chinese Communist Party. It is a political meeting every five years to choose the main leaders of the country.
If the “Zero COVID” agenda is the big reason why things are so complicated, Congress has turbocharged it.
To simply board a train in Shanghai, we needed three “green codes” from three separate apps. Obtaining these tests required multiple tests, minimal contact, and a huge amount of uncertainty.
The green codes are basically digitized proof that you probably don’t have COVID – we needed one from the authorities in Shanghai, one from the authorities in Beijing, and a third so-called “green arrow”.
But a simple negative test is not always enough, people’s codes can change color just to travel from another district or province where cases have been detected.
In short, traveling to Beijing was a bit like trying to enter a digitized fortress.
It’s a snapshot of how Zero COVID is still dictating everyday people’s lives.
In most places you have to have code green to be able to do just about anything; enter stores, restaurants, parks and playgrounds, even housing and office complexes.
It means people need a COVID-19[feminine] test at least every 2-3 days, test centers can be found all around the corner.
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While people are largely resigned to it, there are clear signs of frustration. A woman told me that she had not been able to visit her hometown for over a year, she was too worried that she would have to quarantine herself on her way home and disrupt her child’s schooling.
Everyone I spoke to said they would ideally like things to go back to the way they were.
In some places, however, tempers are fraying and patience is running out. A few weeks ago in Shenzhen province, a group of confined people violently clashed with those trying to enforce it. There have been rare instances of graffiti calling for an end to the rules.
And speaking is very brave; to criticize the Zero COVID program is to criticize the government.
President Xi Jinping made it clear in a Congressional opening address that, for now at least, the policy is here to stay. Saving lives, he says, must come first.
A victory story will be needed to change course, and there is no evidence that it was prepared.
Explanation – Xi Jinping set to tighten his grip on the Communist Party Congress
But this undoubtedly worries at the highest level. The consumer economy has been crippled by the harsh and sudden shutdowns, economic growth has slowed dramatically, and youth unemployment is currently at record highs.
All of these things have the potential to cause instability, and instability is arguably the Communist Party’s greatest fear.
With the exception of North Korea, China is the only country in the world on this path.
But there are costs to treading it, and under control, cracks too.