The Oxford Dictionary describes the phrase ‘Shanghaied’ as coercing or tricking someone into a place or position or into doing something. Viral videos of the shouts of frustration and screams of terror emanating from housing complexes across China’s most prosperous and populous city, Shanghai, which was placed under a harsh, inhuman, and complete lockdown by the authorities in end-March, have underlined the resonance of the word used to headline this comment.
Reeling under a massive Covid-19 outbreak of the BA.2 variant, what is happening in the city of 26 million people which accounts for 3-5 per cent of China’s GDP according to some estimates, is an illustration of the overreach of an absolutist state. Citizens can be heard “asking for death” in the first video posted online by a US-based scientist and since widely disseminated by global media outlets.
Residents can be heard arguing with local authorities, complaining about the scarcity of even basic food items and medical supplies, and warning of repercussions as they are ordered to stay home. Fearing the spread of social unrest to other cities – another video shows people breaking into a supermarket for food ~ Beijing has over the past couple of days started letting some Shanghai residents out of their homes.
A few markets and pharmacies have also been opened for a limited period. But the instinct of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership ~ to corral its co-citizens into their, often tiny, flats without providing adequate help or facilities ~ and its attempt to brazen out such an action under the garb of a “Zero Covid Policy”, has sent an ominous message to its critics at home and abroad. In fact, some officials were sacked after being accused of not implementing the severe quarantine measures aggressively enough.
The subsequent, partial climbdown by the party-state has fooled nobody. The sad truth, however, is that there is precious little anyone can do about it. Especially, given the political context in which these events are playing out. For, Shanghai’s shutdown appears to be driven as much by politics as by public health concerns.
The unrest in China’s richest city is an embarrassment for the CCP in the run-up to its 20th Congress scheduled for the second half of the year where President Xi Jinping is expected to reward himself with an unprecedented third five-year term as leader of the Party. There are those, of course, who would argue that strict Covid-19 protocols are the need of the hour.
They point to the goings-on in the United Kingdom where an independent inquiry into drinks parties at 10 Downing Street during lockdowns has recommended fines be imposed on Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak for their role in the breach of pandemic restrictions. The abiding tragedy is that between these two extremes, empathy and common sense are the first casualties