Security personnel in protective suits stand outside a residential compound under lockdown on October 22 as outbreaks of Covid-19 continue in Beijing. Photo: Reuters
Lijia Zhang
Lijia Zhang

How will China’s ‘zero-Covid’ policy affect public support for the government? It’s complicated

  • Chinese people have generally given the central and provincial governments high marks for their handling of the pandemic, but that is starting to shift
  • Frustration over persisting with the ‘zero-Covid’ policy is starting to show through, threatening to erode hard-earned public trust

Has China’s handling of Covid-19 increased the government’s popularity or decreased it? I find the question fascinating and confusing.

When the authorities first placed Wuhan under lockdown in their effort to contain the outbreak of the virus, people in the West watched the stringent measures with a mixture of amazement and disgust. In China, however, the pandemic has actually boosted the government’s popularity, or at least that was the case until recently.
Cary Wu, an assistant professor of sociology from York University, and his team conducted a large-scale online survey in April 2020. It found that trust in all levels of government had increased, rising to 98 per cent in the national government and 91 per cent in township-level governments.

In some ways, the result wasn’t that surprising. The 2018 World Values Survey found that 95 per cent of Chinese citizens trusted their national government and 69 per cent their local government. In contrast, only around 20 per cent of Americans trusted their national government in the same year.


Panic buying in Chengdu as China locks down another megacity to contain Covid-19 spread

Panic buying in Chengdu as China locks down another megacity to contain Covid-19 spread
So, why is Chinese support so high? “First of all, China’s remarkable economic achievements convinced the citizens that their government is competent,” Wu told me in a recent Zoom interview. “Rising nationalism has also fuelled the trust. And of course, there’s propaganda or some may say the Chinese are being brainwashed.”
He added that the Chinese national psyche also played a role. “Compared to Westerners, Chinese people tend to respect hierarchy and authority.” I broadly agree with this analysis. The Chinese government’s ability to deliver public goods has earned it some legitimacy.
However, China’s “zero-Covid” strategy seems to have shaken some people’s trust. While the rest of the world has more or less resumed normal life while learning to live with the virus, China is sticking to the same rules with mass testing, costly lockdowns and closed borders.
In the lead-up to the 20th party congress, local officials who wanted to avoid punishment and show loyalty to President Xi Jinping competed with each other over containment measures. In Xiamen, fish, crabs and prawns were swabbed and tested. In Shanxi, meanwhile, cities imposed lockdowns when there wasn’t even a single Covid-19 case.
This strategy has caused food shortages, crippled a fragile healthcare system and pushed up the unemployment rate. It has taken a punishing toll on the economy as well as people’s lives. Yet, Beijing continues to pursue this increasingly unattainable policy.
It is never easy to gauge the public mood in a country where information is heavily censored. A follow-up survey Wu conducted from August to October this year found almost 95 per cent of respondents still saying they trusted their national government.
I take this with a grain of salt. From conversations with family and friends on the mainland, I sense a lot of frustration, resentment and anger. Two recent deadly incidents – a bus crash killing 27 people on their way to quarantine facilities in Guizhou and the death of a 14-year-old girl in quarantine in Ruzhou – sparked fury over the unreasonable policy.

One striking sign of discontent came from “Bridge Man”. On October 13, a lone man hung banners from Sitong Bridge in Beijing, protesting against Xi and the zero-Covid policy. One banner read, “I don’t want Covid-19 testing; I want to eat. I don’t want lockdown; I want freedom. I don’t want leaders, I want to vote. … Don’t be a slave; finally become a citizen.”

People watch while smoke rises as a banner with a protest message against President Xi Jinping and China’s “zero-Covid” policy hangs off Sitong Bridge in Beijing on October 13. Photo: Reuters

The fact this rare protest took place shows the depth of resentment among ordinary people. I am certain that many Chinese, especially those living in small towns and the countryside, still have faith in the government. Authorities should appreciate the fact.

If the zero-Covid policy continues and the economic downturn worsens, resentment is likely to grow. And the government – with Xi at the helm – could resort to even more draconian measures to maintain control.

As the old saying goes, people are like water and the regime is like a boat. Water can carry a boat but it could also capsize it.

I hope the Chinese government tries harder to listen to the public and does not abuse their trust. After all, people are the critical force who will ultimately decide the future of any regime.

Lijia Zhang is a rocket-factory worker turned social commentator, and the author of a novel, Lotus