ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Covid Nationalism and Its Discontents in China

Between 2020 and 2022, China imposed a rigorous zero-Covid policy to control its spread and keep the infections and fatalities at or near zero. Stringent lockdowns, frequent PCR tests, and strict restrictions on entry into China were important features of this policy. Although extremely successful during the first two years of the pandemic in preventing the spread of deadly COVID-19 variants such as the Delta, the policy proved ineffective against the Omicron variant. This article examines China’s response to the spread of COVID-19, the framing of this response through nationalist narratives, and the eventual chaotic pivot from zero-Covid policy.

It took the deaths of at least 10 people in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang Province, on 24 November 2022 for widespread protests against the three-year-old zero-Covid policy to erupt in China. This was the first time since the Tiananmen Square rallies in 1988–89 that a large number of people from across the country had in unison expressed their dissatisfaction and disagreement with the Communist Party of China (CPC), its policies, and its leadership. The fact that protesters from Shanghai took the lead in expressing concerns over the tragedy in Urumqi is both remarkable and understandable. Shanghai residents, like those in Urumqi, also experienced months of lockdowns, food and health-service shortages, and concerns about fire safety. Despite the significant differences in their economic, political, and cultural positions within China, Shanghai and Urumqi became entwined in their resentment over a policy that had served its purpose during the first two years of the pandemic, but had become obsolete when dealing with the extremely contagious Omicron variant of the COVID-19.

Although the Shanghai lockdown in April and May 2022 attracted extensive media coverage because of the mega city’s 25 million residents and the impact it has had on the global economy, the almost four-month-long lockdown across Xinjiang from August to November rarely made news until the tragic events in Urumqi. Similarly, while the coverage of internment camps for the Uighurs in Xinjiang made the rounds in the foreign media, it had little impact on the people in China. The deaths caused by fire in a locked-down building in Urumqi brought the city into the limelight and wove the plights of its residents in with those of cities elsewhere in China (Kang 2022). The shared grief, fear, and common detestation over the zero-Covid policy even erased, if only temporarily, the ethno-economic tensions between the Han majority and the Uighur minority in the country.

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Updated On : 6th Feb, 2023
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