“Yes, there is an authoritarian government in China, but everything always works as it should. Yes, in China the decisions taken by the Communist Party sometimes seem inscrutable, but at the end of the day, the children of today are better off than their fathers, who were better off than their fathers in turn.”
“There must be a reason we don’t know about when a decision is imposed that seems incomprehensible on the face of it. Yes, in China we give up some freedoms, more than elsewhere, but we do it for the greater interest of the country, of the people. Yes, we have to stay at home or in some centralized isolation center, but we’ll have enough food.”
These assumptions have rarely been questioned in the last decades of great economic, technological, social and geopolitical growth for the People’s Republic. Not even by most of its most ardent opponents, and not even in the more than two years of the pandemic. Apart from the delays and some secrecy in the initial reaction to the spread of the coronavirus, Beijing has managed to effectively contain contagions and deaths – to such an extent that many others have looked with interest at its containment model, especially in the early stages.
All this until recently. The Shanghai lockdown is changing the way the world looks at China, and, more importantly, the way so many Chinese look at their government. Out of the last few weeks of fear and anger, “Voices of April” has emerged, a collective video that appeared on Chinese social media last Friday and spread at a speed and to an extent perhaps never seen before. Just as quickly, it was censored, given its criticism of the zero Covid strategy. Even apart from its content, which reiterates in a coordinated manner a narrative buttressed by hundreds of other videos and audio recordings, the video is important because it is an ensemble work. It brings together the sentiments of so many Chinese and foreign residents of Shanghai into one collective memory device.
“Voices of April” was shared by Chinese from all provinces, including those living abroad and those who have always had a positive opinion of the government. Many saw it as a means of expressing their own feelings and suffering, silenced by the rhetoric of the Party, which has used the effectiveness of its anti-pandemic response as another example of the superiority of its model over that of the West. But what happened in Shanghai shows that, while opinions on the restrictive measures are divided even in that enormous city, something is in danger of breaking down. Shanghai is not a city like any other. Unlike Shenzhen, it has not become big – it has always been big. It is the symbol of Chinese growth, of a country that is opening up to the world and going from being subject to conquest to a great global power.
Its cultural individuality was also expressed in some ways by the local management of the pandemic, which was less restrictive than in other cities and provinces. This was put to an abrupt end with quasi-brutal episodes such as the eviction of residents from some buildings destined to become quarantine centers.
In Wuhan, Xi Jinping had sent the rising star Chen Yixin to resolve the situation: mission accomplished. In Shanghai, Vice Premier Sun Chunlan arrived and things got even worse – just as the state media was stressing the unbreakable link between the zero Covid strategy and the leader. Xi “set the tone for everyone,” Mao Xiaowei wrote. The president “personally took overall control and made decisive decisions, and provided important guidance at every critical moment,” Sun reiterated. The effect, intended or unintended, is that discontent has been channeled against the central government. Some rumors claim that local secretary Li Qiang will soon be replaced by another loyalist, Ding Xuexiang. However, in Wuhan, on the matter of Li Wenliang’s death, the government had managed to divert the blame to local officials. In 2011, the anger over the Beijing-Shanghai train disaster was the fuel for the anti-corruption campaign waged by the future leader Xi.
It won’t happen this time. Xi wants to come to the 20th Congress boasting of a great victory: he is the general who must win the war against the evil enemy, the virus. So far, many battles have indeed been won. And the one in Shanghai will also be declared won once the restrictions are removed. However, it has perhaps become a war that many no longer understand. Now, there is a lack of food. Now, the frightened and uncertain faces of the volunteers are saying that a fundamental element seems to be missing: a reason for what they are going through. It’s not even a problem of numbers, it’s not even a problem (only) of authoritarianism: it’s a problem of efficiency.
Now, for many, the war against the virus has come to look like Xi’s personal war. After some signs in recent months, also in conjunction with the plenum and the historic resolution, the episode in Shanghai suggests that in addition to a fracture between the social body and the leadership, there may also be one within the Party itself. This is just speculation, but China has taught us many times not to take anything for granted.