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As China imposes more COVID lockdowns, ‘everyone is scared’


A testing site in Chengdu, China, on Friday, during a lockdown. The city’s testing system collapsed over the weekend, leaving residents waiting in line for hours.

By Vivian Wang


In the hours before the southern Chinese city of Chengdu entered a coronavirus lockdown, Matthew Chen visited four vegetable markets in an attempt to stock up on fresh food. But seemingly the entire city had the same idea, and by the time he got to each place, most of the shelves had been stripped bare, except for hot peppers and fruit, he said.


Chen, a white-collar worker in his 30s, managed to scavenge enough cherry tomatoes, meat and greens for about one day, and since then has been ordering grocery deliveries to tide him through the lockdown, which began Friday. But he worries about whether that supply will remain stable, and how much longer he will have to rely on it.


“The longer a lockdown goes, the more problems emerge, and the harder it is to tolerate it,” he said, noting that the Chengdu government had not given a timeline for reopening.


Problems have already appeared. Some residents have complained on social media of long delays in food deliveries. Over the weekend, Chengdu’s COVID-19 testing system — which has been tasked with swabbing all of the city’s 21 million residents every day — collapsed, leaving residents waiting in line for hours.


Similar scenes of uncertainty and anxiety are playing out across China, as the country battles a new wave of coronavirus outbreaks, with cases recorded over the past week in nearly every province. The authorities have responded with the lockdowns and mass testing that have come to define the country’s “zero-COVID” policy.


The number of infections remains relatively small, with about 1,500 new cases Sunday. Yet some 60 million people across China are facing partial or full lockdowns, according to Chinese media, from Chengdu to the southern economic powerhouse of Shenzhen to the oil-producing city of Daqing near Russia.


The challenges in enforcing such extensive controls are daunting, perhaps more so now than at any other point in the pandemic. Nearly three years of on-and-off lockdowns have lashed the economy, sending unemployment soaring, especially among young people. The country is increasingly isolated, as the rest of the world largely abandons COVID-19 restrictions. New subvariants are ever more transmissible. And the seemingly endless restrictions leave more ordinary Chinese people wearier by the day.


But the stakes have also reached new heights. The ruling Communist Party is scheduled to hold an important congress on Oct. 16, where China’s leader, Xi Jinping, is expected to claim a third term. Xi has given his personal imprimatur to “zero-COVID,” casting it as proof of the party’s strength — and by extension, his own leadership. Any local official seen as weakening that claim could face serious consequences.


The overriding imperative of wiping out infections was evident in the speed with which cities moved to shut down recently, despite the huge economic and social toll.


Chengdu on Sunday announced that it would continue the stay-at-home orders and daily universal testing that began Friday for at least three more days, as the situation remained “serious and complicated.” It did not say whether the lockdown would end afterward.


The restrictions are certain to strain Chengdu’s economy. Even before the lockdown, the city had banned large-scale gatherings, leading to the cancellation of an international auto show that last year generated nearly $1 billion in sales.


The shutdown also follows a recent drought, record-breaking heat and power outages last month that had led to factory closures across Sichuan province, where Chengdu is the capital. The heat may in fact have exacerbated the virus’s spread: Several major clusters were linked to swimming pools where people had gone to cool off, according to state media.


To many, the panic buying in Chengdu underscored how deeply previous lockdowns — especially the grueling two-month shutdown of Shanghai this year — had shaken people. Though Chengdu officials have tried to reassure residents that food supplies are ample, Shanghai had offered similar assurances, only to see widespread reported shortages of food and medicine.


Chengdu officials themselves have already tested residents’ trust, after the authorities last week ordered a man detained for 15 days, accusing him of spreading false rumors on social media about a looming lockdown. Two days later, when the city did actually lock down, social media erupted with support for the man and anger at the government.


“Everyone is scared, scared that the situation will become like Shanghai,” said Chen, the office worker, who had traveled to Chengdu on business before becoming trapped there by the restrictions.


Still, he saw little alternative but to bear with the situation. “Personally, I’m extremely fed up with and not supportive of these policies. But there’s nothing I can do,” he said. “I can only wait.”


The drive for zero cases at all costs has also led to widespread shutdowns in Shenzhen, one of China’s most economically vital metropolises, home to major tech companies, including Tencent and Huawei. There, the local authorities over the weekend ordered most of the city’s 18 million residents to stay at home, postponed the start of the school year and shuttered most public transit after detecting about 400 cases in the past week.


Lockdowns are being extended in parts of Hainan province and in the regions of Xinjiang and Tibet, major vacation destinations where flare-ups of infections last month led to thousands of tourists being trapped in their hotels, sometimes at their own expense. Over the weekend, at least 33 cities were under some form of restrictions, according to Caixin, a Chinese news outlet.


As the restrictions have spread across the country, so has public discontent. In Chengdu, the testing failures prompted a flurry of outrage at the company responsible, with online commenters noting that certain sectors focused on COVID-19 control were profiting while regular people were suffering economically. Testing companies have reported soaring revenue in public filings.


In Daqing, a city of nearly 3 million people in China’s northeast that has been locked down for about two weeks, local officials promised to investigate widely shared social media reports of a pregnant woman who miscarried after being denied medical care because of COVID-19 restrictions.


Even the government appears to have tacitly acknowledged that people’s patience is fraying. In many of the cities recently sealed off, officials have gone to great lengths not to call the measures a lockdown. In Shenzhen, local officials described the weekend requirements only as universal testing — then added that residents should immediately return home afterward. The Chengdu announcement said residents would “in principle stay at home.”


On the social media platform Weibo, the hashtag “Chengdu lockdown” has been censored.

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