Scenes of panic buying at supermarkets and mass testing for COVID-19 in Beijing have raised concerns that the Chinese capital could enter a strict lockdown à la Shanghai.
Chaoyang, the most populous district in Beijing, has ordered all 3.5 million residents to test for the virus this week after the city found 47 cases of the coronavirus since Friday.
The number is tiny compared to that of Shanghai, which reported nearly 20,000 new infections on Sunday. But a surge in cases would force the authorities to make a call on whether to impose the same kinds of lockdown measures that have brought chaos to Shanghai and stoked resentment of the authorities in the wealthy financial hub.
On Monday morning, Beijing residents lined up at makeshift testing sites, emptied store shelves and stocked up on food in anticipation of some sort of a lockdown.
“I’m preparing for the worst,” a student in the city’s Haidian district told Reuters.
People line up to be tested for the coronavirus at a makeshift testing site outside office buildings in Beijing on Monday. Photo: Jade GAO / AFP
Cai Qi, the Communist Party chief of Beijing who oversaw the 2022 Winter Olympics, said Saturday that the virus was spreading stealthily and rapidly in the city, and vowed to take resolute measures to contain it.
While seemingly determined to adhere to the “COVID zero” doctrine, officials in Beijing will be wary of repeating Shanghai’s disruptive approach to fighting the virus.
Shanghai, with a population of 28 million, has imposed some of the harshest restrictions on everyday life since the virus emerged in Wuhan more than two years ago.
Disturbing reports and videos from the city have shown how pandemic-control workers seal off entire neighborhoods and beat street dogs to death in the name of public health. Many residents have also struggled to secure food or get medical treatments as COVID-19 patients overwhelmed hospitals. Over the weekend, the city erected new barriers around residential buildings in the Pudong neighborhood to enforce what residents have called “hard isolation.”
The COVID-19 death toll in Shanghai has risen to 138 after staying zero—some say implausibly—for weeks following an outbreak that has infected 400,000 people since March.
The true extent of the hardship and toll is hard to ascertain as online censors actively delete comments and posts considered to be critical of the government actions.
“People are joking that what we have here in Shanghai is an intranet,” a 23-year-old resident in the city, who is undergoing quarantine in a hospital, told VICE World News. Speaking anonymously to avoid government retaliation, she said that social media posts about the situation in Shanghai are frequently deleted. Even messages circulated in small messaging groups are being censored once they reach enough people, she said.
“The government just wants the outside world to see news reports it thinks would do society good,” she said.
But backlash against the tough lockdown measures has broken through censorship. A bleak video featuring the voices of Shanghai residents struggling during the lockdown has gone viral on Chinese social media and in messaging apps before being erased from the internet.
The video, titled “Sounds of April,” was posted on Friday and documented the first weeks of lockdown in Shanghai using a montage of audio clips from official speeches and recordings of people in distress: a man saying his ill father was denied hospital care, people fighting for beds in an unfinished quarantine hospital, angry residents crying for government food rations.
The six-minute video ends with a subtitle, “Get well soon, Shanghai.”