Illustration by Anson Chan
Many citizens don’t know anyone who’s had the disease, yet their faith in the country’s restrictive rules is waning.
Do you personally know anybody who has been infected with COVID-19? In most parts of the world, the question is absurd—it makes more sense to ask, “Do you know anybody who has not been infected?” But, recently, on a survey that I sent to former students in China, this was one of my questions. I taught these students from 1996 to 1998, when I served as a Peace Corps volunteer in southwestern China, and since then we’ve stayed in close touch. For nearly a decade, I’ve sent them annual surveys, and this year I was curious to know more about their pandemic experiences.
Of forty respondents, none had been infected. Nobody had had a case in his or her household, and there were also no infections among close relatives—parents, spouses, children, or siblings. Only six personally knew anybody who had tested positive for COVID. For three of these respondents, the cases occurred among distant relatives, whereas the other three had work colleagues or friends who had been infected.
One of the colleague cases, though, was uncertain. An English instructor at a high school in Chongqing explained to me that, earlier in the year, a fellow-teacher had showed no symptoms but came up positive during one of the countless PCR tests that have been administered to Chinese citizens as part of the government’s “zero COVID” policy. The woman had received a vaccination shortly before the PCR test, and two days later she tested negative. Given the lack of symptoms, the recent vaccination, and the fact that she had had no known close contacts with the virus, it seemed likely that this was a false positive.
My former student and I were discussing the case on WeChat, and I asked if the teacher had been allowed to return to work after the negative test. The terseness of his response seemed to capture something about the government’s policy:
Full quarantine. She stayed home for a whole semester.
Later, he explained that the teacher potentially could have returned after completing her quarantine. But school officials were so nervous about the policy that they decided to replace her with another instructor.
On the survey, I also asked my former students to quantify how much they worried about getting infected. They used a scale of one to ten, with ten being extremely worried. More than a quarter of the respondents rated their feelings a ten, and the average was 7.9. I followed up by asking whether they were most concerned about health effects or logistical issues. Only two chose health.
Then I asked another question:
On a scale of one to ten, with one being the lowest score and ten being the highest, how would you rate the Chinese government’s handling of the pandemic?
Once again, the average was 7.9. More than a third of the respondents gave the government a nine or a ten. Reading through the surveys, I felt as if I had been handed pieces from different puzzles, and now I had to put them together. Virtually nobody had had any personal contact with the virus, but virtually everybody was terrified of it, and yet they seemed relatively unconcerned about potential health effects. On top of that, they registered strong approval of government policies. How could all of these things possibly make sense?
I sent out the survey in October, and the final responses arrived two weeks ago—before the fire in Xinjiang that killed at least ten people, prompting public protests against the “zero COVID” policy in at least a dozen major cities. The responses of my former students don’t reflect those events, but they do reflect a period of many months in which China had already experienced significant problems with its policy, including this spring’s brutal lockdown in Shanghai.
The respondents are similar to many provincial urban Chinese: educated and solidly middle class, but not rich. Most of my former students are now in their mid- to late forties, and all of the ones who answered this year’s survey are working as teachers. They tend to live in third- or fourth-tier cities in Chongqing municipality and in Sichuan Province, the kind of places that foreigners have never heard of: Suining, Guangyuan, Dianjiang, Liangping. Such cities have been less likely to experience outbreaks, in part because few residents or visitors are returning from overseas. One respondent wrote:
In our town, there are three people who have been infected with COVID. The population of our town is about 700,000.
Another man commented on the strangeness of having experienced so much daily disruption without any actual illness. “The pandemic is just like a ghost,” he wrote. After nearly three years, the level of knowledge in such places can be shockingly low: some respondents commented about the need to prioritize protecting children from infection, apparently still unaware that the young are not at high risk. Like most Chinese citizens of their generation, my former students generally do not use virtual private networks to skirt the government’s Internet firewall. But they are well aware that their information is heavily censored. One woman wrote:
Mr. Hessler, I am curious. I think it is strange that we have never watched a covid patient interviewed on TV. We don’t know what they felt after being infected. There should have been many reports on the patients.
At the end of the survey, I asked whether the pandemic has changed anything significant about their personal opinions, beliefs, or values. The responses included:
Yes, Chinese government really cares about people’s health.
Yes, we are not free any more, there are too many restrictions because of the pandemic.
Yes, I used to think teaching was not a good job with a low salary, but now I think it’s the safest job we have got. Many people have no money to make or they lose their jobs or business.
Yes, I think the government is more able [at] handling the global crisis. We feel much safer.
No, I think the government is not civilized now, they treat people worse because of the disease. And people are more bad-tempered than before.
In past surveys, I had never received so many contradictory answers to a single question. Some of it undoubtedly reflected propaganda: since 2020, the state press has gloried in China’s performance while often taking an unseemly pleasure in the failures of the United States and other countries. I’ve had friends joke that the word “Schadenfreude” comes from Chinese rather than German, and this emotion is not limited to transpacific issues. A few survey respondents found silver linings much closer to home:
[In the past] I was jealous of many business friends, they make a lot of money. They felt much more freedom and enjoyed a more wonderful life , and they looked down on us because we were 普通老百姓 [average people]. But things are now different, many of them find it hard to survive the situation. Some of them have been out of business. Now I think to have a 事业单位工作 [state-run job] is decent and 安逸 [easy and comfortable], but I did not think so before the pandemic.
I lived with my family in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan, during the first year and a half of the pandemic, a period when China’s “zero COVID” policy was mostly successful. After the earliest weeks, when a local government coverup in Wuhanresulted in a disastrous spread of the virus, the national leadership instituted lockdowns, contact tracing, international-travel bans, and other policies that seemed appropriate to the situation. My daughters, like all Chengdu schoolchildren, were back in the classroom by early May, 2020, and we resumed daily life without any real chance of catching the virus. China was unique in many respects—the only major economy that grew in 2020, and the only populous country that was able to reduce the spread to the point where people lived without fear of the virus.
The memory of that period is part of what made many Chinese so tolerant of the mistakes that followed. One former student wrote in the survey:
China is a country of aging population and the development of medical and health services is uneven. At the beginning, maybe the epidemic prevention policy is not the best, but the most suitable. So I would rate it an eight. But now, I give it a four. (Maybe the only thing I need to do is keep quiet.)
Another unique aspect of China’s early experience of the pandemic is that it created relatively few divisions within society. The most significant divides were geographic—Wuhan and other surrounding communities suffered thousands of deaths, long lockdowns, and intense fears. But those parts of Hubei Province represented a small fraction of the country. The vast majority of Chinese didn’t suffer these losses and disruptions, and they tended to support the government policies.
That sense of a shared fate and shared goals has been shattered by the post-Omicron failure of “zero COVID.” The recent protests reflect new divisions: demonstrations have been more common in Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu, and other major cities that are at higher risk of outbreaks. The most intense anger tends to come from people in the private economy, which has been decimated. And the young, who probably suffer the most from reduced mobility, a lack of social contact, and a sense of dwindling career opportunity, seem to represent a significant number of the demonstrators.
This splintering of experience, though, also makes it difficult for protests to spread. For years, the one-party state has cracked down on independent advocacy groups and other organizations that might build civil society, and citizens have generally learned to mind their own business. (“Maybe the only thing I need to do is keep quiet.”) In such a climate, it’s hard for people to feel much solidarity with others who are in a worse situation—one reason that Schadenfreude is a Chinese word. Even those who sympathize deeply with protesters are likely to feel trapped by responsibilities and potential punishments. After the protests began, one former student wrote me about his anger at the situation, but he also had the perspective of a middle-aged man with a good job:
Of course I have not been out to protest. Who dares to? We know what the consequences are, many people have been detained for not having regular tests. And if we do, we will get the whole family involved. In Shanghai, many people were warned that if they did not abide by the rules, three generations of the family would be affected, which was like what happened during the Cultural Revolution. Many people were forced to protest because they were out of work for so long. Well, I don’t know anyone who is protesting.
He was among the survey respondents who also didn’t know anybody who had been infected with COVID. From his perspective, and from the perspective of many others in smaller cities, those are the ghosts: both the virus and the protesters.
Before China, I lived in Egypt during much of the Arab Spring, and there are certain contrasts and connections between the two places. In Egypt and other countries in the Middle East, demographics contributed to the unrest. About half of the Egyptian population was under the age of twenty-five, and many of these young people were poorly educated and had few job prospects. In China, on the other hand, a little more than a quarter of the population is under twenty-five. The majority of young people have no siblings, are relatively well educated, and feel immense pressure from family expectations. They also tend to be connected to educational institutions at a much higher rate than young people in Egypt. Since the pandemic began, the Chinese government has expanded graduate-school programs, in part to delay the influx of educated young people into an unstable job market. During the two years that I taught at Sichuan University, from 2019 to 2021, virtually all my seniors continued on to grad school. At the moment, I can think of only one student from this younger cohort who is working rather than studying, and she has a government job. Public demonstrations tend to be driven by the young, but they are less likely to take drastic measures when they are already connected to institutions that might punish or reward them.
A contradictory lesson from Egypt involves succession. There was no single reason that the Arab Spring spread there, but one important factor was uncertainty about who would follow President Hosni Mubarak, who was eighty-two when the demonstrations began. President Xi Jinping is not yet seventy, but he is the first Chinese leader in more than a generation to rule without term limits. The classic delusion of any autocrat is that an open-ended tenure represents stability. In fact, when a country lacks a clear timetable for transition, and when potential successors have been cleared from sight, there can be a natural tendency for unrest to develop. This may take the form of public protests, but it can also involve the unseen jockeying of upper-level leaders or others who operate within institutions of power. An autocrat’s mistakes can accelerate this process, and by connecting himself so proudly with “zero COVID,” and by maintaining it so stubbornly, Xi Jinping now fully owns the policy. That’s another word that could have come from Chinese: hubris.
In recent days, there haven’t been other major protests, and local governments have been loosening restrictions. But Xi Jinping and the central government have yet to make clear statements about the path forward. We should view the protests as part of what is likely to be a much longer process, as Chinese citizens come to grips with the fact that the flaws in their system may be greater than those they’ve tolerated in the past. There’s no easy off-ramp from “zero COVID,” and the level of disinformation makes it hard to predict citizens’ reactions as the virus spreads and policies potentially change. Even in my personal surveys with individuals who are of similar ages, backgrounds, and professional status, I observed a high degree of confusion and contradiction.
It’s also significant that “zero COVID” has been hardest on some of the groups that potentially have the greatest impact on stability. In major international cities like Shanghai and Beijing, citizens are especially unhappy, and the same is true with entrepreneurs. Most important, perhaps, are the reactions of the young. Even before the pandemic, Li Chunling, one of the most prominent sociologists in China, had conducted large-scale surveys of youth that showed a diminished interest in joining the Communist Party. She also observed a tendency among the young for high income and educational attainment to correlate with reduced national identification. At Sichuan University, I noticed similar trends in my students, who also clearly lacked any emotional connection to Xi Jinping.
Recently, I met with one of these younger students in New York City. He’s enrolled in graduate school there, and he had just watched the closing ceremony of the twentieth Party Congress of the Chinese Communist Party. At the congress, Xi officially received another term, and there was no indication that the “zero COVID” policy might be adjusted. My student said that one of his Chinese classmates burst into tears while watching. “She was hoping for some change,” he said.
A couple of days before we met, my student had been infected with COVID. His case was mild, so we sat outside on a relatively warm day in Manhattan. A number of my Sichuan University students are now in grad school overseas, where part of the academic ritual, almost invariably, is a case of COVID. I asked my student the same question I always ask: Did you tell your parents?
“Of course not!” he said, laughing. And that was always the answer: for the young, there was no point in scaring their parents, and they also tended to avoid long phone conversations about “zero COVID,” the Party Congress, or any type of politics. They seemed to figure that, sooner or later, the old folks back in Sichuan would learn the truth on their own.
All Rights Reserved for Peter Hessler