In China, seemingly simple things continue to pose barriers and blockages.
Taking a train from Shanghai to Beijing used to be a very easy thing to do. The high-speed rail network here is impressive, the two open and international cities are very well connected.
But times are still not “normal” here, and that journey is now something of a business.
We made the trip this week and arrived in Beijing during the 20th Party Congress of the ruling Chinese Communist Party. It is a political meeting that takes place once every five years to elect the main leaders of the country.
If it is the ‘Zero COVID’ agenda that dictates much of why things are so complicated, Congress has empowered it.
To simply board a train in Shanghai, we needed so-called “green codes” from three separate apps. Obtaining those required multiple tests, minimal contacts, and a great deal of uncertainty.
The green codes are essentially digitized proof that you most likely don’t have COVID: we needed one from the Shanghai authorities, one from the Beijing authorities, and a third called “green arrow.”
But simply testing negative is not always enough, people’s codes can change color simply by traveling from another district or province where cases have been detected.
In short, traveling to Beijing felt a bit like trying to enter a digitized fortress.
It is a snapshot of how Zero COVID continues to dictate the lives of ordinary people.
In most places, you must have a green code to be able to do almost anything; enter stores, restaurants, parks and playgrounds, even housing and office complexes.
It means that people need a COVID-19 test at least every 2-3 days, testing centers can be found on street corners everywhere.
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While people are mostly resigned, there are clear signs of frustration. One woman told me that she has not been able to visit her hometown for over a year, she is too worried that she will have to self-quarantine when she returns home and disrupt her child’s education.
Everyone I talked to said that ideally, they would like things to go back to the way they were.
In some places, however, tempers are fraying and patience is wearing thin. A few weeks ago in Shenzhen province, a group of people under lockdown violently clashed with those trying to impose it. There have been rare cases of graffiti calling for an end to the rules.
And speaking is very brave; criticizing the Zero COVID agenda is considered similar to criticizing the government.
President Xi Jinping made clear in a congressional opening speech that, at least for now, politics is here to stay. Saving lives, he says, must come first.
It will take a narrative of victory to turn the tide, and there is no evidence that it has been prepared.
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But it is certainly causing concern at the highest level. The consumer economy has been crippled by the sudden and strict lockdowns, economic growth has slowed significantly, and youth unemployment is currently at record levels.
All of these things have the potential to cause instability, and instability is arguably the Communist Party’s greatest fear.
With the exception of North Korea, Porcelain it is the only country in the world on this path.
But stepping on it has its costs and, under control, there are also cracks.