in Opinion | 02 DEC 22

Stories We Missed: China’s Zero-COVID Policy Has Failed Artists – and Everyone Else

A Shanghai native reflects on the catastrophe of the Chinese governments autocratic attempts to stop the spread

in Opinion | 02 DEC 22

In early April, I left my home in Shanghai as the city entered a two-month lockdown. Since then, I have been drifting around the world, lost and confused. I don’t know whether or when I can go home, nor what home would be like if I did. For many Chinese people, 2022 has been a year of disbelief, outrage, fear, helplessness, mourning and despair. A series of draconian measures implemented by Xi to secure power has resulted in unjust collateral deaths, as well as the disillusionment of millions.

At the beginning of the year, the country was optimistically anticipating a return to normality, with China set to lift its zero-COVID policy. But, following citywide lockdowns in Xi’an and Shanghai – repeated in Jilin, Ulumuqi, Guangzhou and now parts of Beijing – it became clear that the Chinese government had weaponized the virus to maintain political control.

China battles COVID-19 outbreaks, 2022. Courtesy: Kevin Frayer/ Getty Images

When I moved back to Shanghai in 2014, after studying abroad, I encountered one of the most exciting periods in the citys history since the 1920s: from art and music to fashion and clubbing, a full-scale cultural renaissance had taken hold. Everyone was hopeful, hungry, ambitious: the world was paying close attention to us. There was even talk of Shanghai replacing Beijing as the country’s new art capital. That optimism resonated nationwide, so even as the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) began introducing suspicious policies, such as the neocolonial Belt and Road Initiative and the lifting of the term limits for party chairmanship (originally introduced in 1982 by Deng Xiaoping to protect the country from despotism), we turned a blind eye.

Today, however, the Chinese governments zero-COVID approach has wreaked havoc on the country’s economy, resulting in incalculable unemployment and closed businesses. This August, the Guangdong Times Museum in Guangzhou, one of the earliest private museums in China, announced its closure. At the same time, cultural-censorship policies have become increasingly autocratic, in tandem with the large-scale rollout of surveillance technologies. Through propaganda and information control, the state has successfully turned loyal nationalists into its eyes and ears, reporting on anything they see as insufficiently aligned with party principles. Numerous artists and cultural institutions have suffered the consequences: most recently, UCCA Center for Contamporary Art in Beijing came under fire when Li Songsongs Six Men (2008), a painting depicting kamikaze soldiers, was reported on the ground of endorsing Japanese militarism.

China battles COVID-19 outbreaks, 2022. Courtesy: Kevin Frayer/ Getty Images

Extended multiple times, the Shanghai lockdown left the citys 25 million inhabitants in a state of confusion and despair. Trapped indoors, unable to leave except during mass testing sessions, many struggled to find food and hundreds died – not from COVID-19 but because they had no access to hospital treatment for other diseases. Others were tragically driven to take their own lives. The government speedily wiped any trace of dissent or condolence from social media: a TikTok video of a mother locked in her apartment crying for help as her one-year-old baby starved was taken down within minutes. There was never any official statement or statistics to acknowledge these collateral deaths.

Unlike the majority of Chinese passport holders, I was able to leave Shanghai during the lockdown by signing a letter for the authorities which stated I would be attending a world-class event as a representative of China, and that my absence would constitute a humiliation for the country. By the time Shanghai’s lockdown entered its sixth week, and encouraged by my still-confined parents, I decided to stay temporarily in Europe. While incredibly lucky, I have since found it impossible to work, or indeed feel confidence in the value of my work – a feeling shared by countless artists and cultural workers in China due to this year’s crises.

Protesters march along a street in protest of China's harsh COVID-19 restrictions in Beijing, 2022. Courtesy: Noel Celis/ Getty Images

Over the past few weeks, the largest protest since 1989 has erupted across the country, incited by a fire in a high-rise apartment block in Xinjiang on 24 November that is said to have killed at least ten people – a tragedy that easily could have been prevented had the authorities not insisted on locking the building gates, emergency fire exits and apartment doors. As usual, the government attempted to deflect responsibility, with the head of the citys Fire Rescue Department, Li Wensheng, blaming the victims at a press conference for weak self-help skills. This monstrous affront drove the people of Ulumuqi, capital of Xinjiang and home to the country’s Uyghur population – under lockdown since August – to tear down the fences and take to the streets, demanding their freedom.

The next day, students at Nanjing Communication University gathered on campus to commemorate the victims of the Ulumuqi fire and Shanghai citizens flocked to Ulumuqi Middle Road. What started as a peaceful, silent demonstration with many holding a blank paper in the face of all-pervasive silencing – which I followed on WeChat for hours, unable to put my phone down, as footage was uploaded and deleted by the minute – soon grew into a full-fledged protest, with people yelling slogans written on the banners that a heroic demonstrator, now known as Bridge Man, had strung across Beijings Sitong Bridge on the eve of the CCPs 20th National Congress in October. They clearly spelled out all of Bridge Man’s demands, from We want freedom, not lockdowns. We want respect, not lies to Step down, Xi Jinping. The government immediately began to suppress the demonstrations with sweeping arrests, social-media censoring and regional internet blackouts. But, as of the time of writing, people have not backed down. In fact, uprisings have spread across the country, from Shanghai to Beijing to Hangzhou.

Protesters march along a street in protest of China's harsh COVID-19 restrictions in Beijing, 2022. Courtesy: Noel Celis/ Getty Images

I have never seen outrage on this level across all factions of Chinese society. Many of my friends in Shanghai and Beijing have joined the crowds on the streets. Some have had their WeChat accounts permanently wiped as a result. But, along with fear for those arrested and for events yet to come, there is also a sense of release, of awakening, of hope – even if it comes at a cost.

On 27 November, I joined around 200 people in the European city I was passing through to commemorate the Ulumuqi fire victims. Over the past few years, as protests and uprisings have broken out around the world, I have reflected on the impact of growing up in an empire that, for decades, has suppressed its people’s political consciousness. Working in the cultural sector, however, I have discovered in myself and in my compatriots a depth of empathy and vocation I’d like to believe we inherited from the thinkers and artists of Chinas New Culture Movement at the dawn of the 20th century, and which, as recent events have shown, cannot be crushed by the state.

Police officers block Wulumuqi Street in Shanghai, 2022. Courtesy: Hector Retamal/Getty Images

Standing among my fellow protesters – mostly Chinese, but also Uyghurs and Koreans, among others – Id never felt so alive. Those refusing to be silenced in China, and those of us dispersed across the rest of the world, must use whatever resources, networks and knowledge we have to sustain our awakening. As the trailblazing sign declared at the National Art Museum of Chinas groundbreaking China/Avant-Garde exhibition in 1989: No U Turn. We cannot afford to lose any more ground.

Editor’s note: We have chosen to protect the identity of the writer of this article.

‘China’s Zero-COVID Policy Has Failed Artists – and Everyone Else' is part of a series of short essays on the events and trends we missed in our coverage of art and culture in 2022. Read more – and last year’s stories – here

Main image: Hong Kongers Protest China's Zero-Covid Policies, 2022. Courtesy: Anthony Kwan / Getty Images