The plan was to have China in tip-top shape when thousands of delegates gathered in Beijing to usher in Xi Jinping’s historic third term in power.
However, the coronavirus is not cooperating.
Tens of millions of people have been confined to their homes in lockdowns across 60 towns and cities in recent weeks, putting political pressure on the man who has become China’s most powerful figure since the first Communist-era leader, Mao Zedong.
Mr Xi is inextricably linked to the government’s ongoing “Dynamic zero-Covid” strategy. His success is dependent on its success. Is it a failure? It would take a brave person to try to pin it on him.
Vaccine rollouts in other parts of the world have meant learning to live with the virus, but this one major economy stands alone, clinging to a response designed to stop every outbreak.
Strict lockdowns, mass testing, constant scanning of health codes, and travel restrictions have prevented hospitals in China from becoming overcrowded. However, it has come at a price: official youth unemployment stands at 18.7%. It was around 20% earlier this year.
Despite significant economic and societal pressure, the government has not turned to the one thing that could hasten the end of the crisis. While it has been willing to enforce strict compliance in all other aspects of Covid policy, it has not pushed vaccination with the same zeal.
There is no requirement to be immunised. There is almost no public awareness campaign.
And it has steadfastly restricted vaccination to locally developed vaccines only when research has shown that they are not as effective as those produced internationally. It appears that national pride has triumphed over science.
To some extent, this superpower is surviving. Almost a fifth of the world’s population is living inside a giant bubble in some way. However, they are doing so while people’s livelihoods are being destroyed.
Rail services out of Xinjiang were suspended this week, and many parts of the western region, including the capital Urumqi, were placed under lockdown as officials admitted they had failed to stop the virus’s spread.
People have reported being unable to obtain food and medicine due to China’s stricter lockdowns, but zero-Covid is affecting people’s daily lives in a variety of other ways as well.
This is exhausting the population three years into the crisis.
Life after the roadblock
Workers on low incomes live in Yanjiao on the outskirts of Beijing because the rent is lower. It is located on the other side of a river, just inside Hebei province.
This wouldn’t be a problem in normal circumstances, but during a pandemic, it can mean navigating a maze of roadblocks to get from where you live to where you work.
In June of this year, a series of cases saw residents of Yanjiao barred from entering the capital, resulting in clashes between police enforcing the border closure and employees attempting to get to work.
Locals have been seen paddling across the water in inflatable craft to sneak into the city since then.
The border is open at the time of writing, but everyone entering Beijing must show their IDs, which are linked to health code apps.
Every morning in Yanjiao, buses can be seen lined up, stopping before crossing the street so police can board and ensure everyone is in good health.
Due to the delays, Yanjiao commuters appear untrustworthy in the eyes of employers.
“Many people in this area have been laid off by their employers,” one woman in the bus line said. “And if they find new work, they may be treated unfairly once more.”
The ancient capital is peaceful.
From Beijing to Xi’an, we take the train. Upon arrival, the station is clogged with thousands of passengers attempting to download the local health app after descending the stairs from the platform. Before leaving the station, everyone must perform a new PCR test.
Xi’an has been a driving force in inland China’s economy since it was the starting point of the old Silk Road, which stretched across Central Asia into the Middle East and Europe. Nowadays, the city is regarded as one of the top tourist destinations in the county.
We meet Addison Sun, an English-language tour guide, and ask him how the pandemic has affected his industry.
“Wow! 100% for international tourism “he claims “No one can come to Xi’an because no one can come to China.”
Domestic tourists who are willing to travel are also in short supply. If you go somewhere and a few coronavirus cases appear, the city may be closed down. Even if it isn’t, your home city may decide not to accept you back if you’ve been exposed to infections. You’re stranded, sometimes for an extended period of time, and you have to pay for your lodging and other necessities.
In Xi’an, there have been several stay-at-home lockdowns, one of which kept 13 million people indoors for a month. As a result, the famous Terracotta Warriors’ home has been deserted at times.
Addison Sun claims he fell into depression after his work stopped.
“There is no income. This is the lowest point in my life, “he claims “And, you know, I couldn’t do anything as a man. ‘Hi darling, can you give me 100 or 200 [yuan]?’ I’d ask my wife.”
When he saw his eight-year-old, he pulled himself out of the mire “I have to get up because I’m supposed to be the model. I’m my daughter’s hero “- and began offering virtual tours of Xi’an on the internet. He now teaches English as well, but he longs for the day when foreign tourists return.
Visitors are expected to flock to the city’s Muslim Quarter, which historians believe dates back to the Tang Dynasty. Stallholders continue to line the streets, shouting about their kebabs and sweets, but their restaurants are empty. Tarps blow in the wind along the narrow lanes where shops have closed.
“I paid two years rent the day before the lockdown,” says Zhang Min, who owns a small shop where she sells her handmade belts and bags. “We come from the country. We simply desired to accomplish something on our own.”
She sobs as she describes her desire to provide a better life for her mother.
When does she expect things to return to normal? “It’s difficult to say,” she admits. “Outbreaks occur repeatedly.”
In the ‘world’s factory,’ trust is eroding.
For decades, exports have powered China’s economic transformation, but zero-Covid means that some overseas buyers are sourcing their products elsewhere due to concerns about disruption to China’s supply chains.
Dieshiqiao, in Jiangsu Province, just north of Shanghai, is a clothing manufacturing centre.
Staff at a small factory are hunched over their sewing machines, working furiously to make up for an entire season of lost production due to a lockdown.
When a man walks in and begins secretly filming us on his phone, the bosses had just begun to explain their recent challenges. He then goes to speak with the owners, and the interview is cancelled.
“I sincerely apologise. We simply cannot do it “one of the company’s owners says
While it is legal to interview people here, who would defy the Communist Party in this manner?