Shanghai’s lockdown may have ended, but not China’s zero-covid policy

Covid testing will become permanent in China.
Covid testing will become permanent in China.
Image: Reuters/Aly Song
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As the clock struck midnight today (June 1), Shanghai’s 25 million residents had their first breath of freedom in two months as the local government lifted the city’s covid-19 lockdown.

Excited citizens gathered on the streets and the Bund, the city’s signature waterfront area, to take selfies, drink, and dance. In the past two months, most of them were barred from leaving apartments and lived on goods bought in bulk by informal associations of neighbors, as the once-buzzing city grappled with rising infections that at one point reached tens of thousands a day. As cases in the city dropped to double-digits in recent days, the government started allowing some residents to go grocery shopping for a few hours and eventually announced the lift of most restrictions this week. In a subtle acknowledgment of citizens’ frustration about food shortages and restricted access to medical aid during the lockdown, the local government published a thank-you letter (link in Chinese), saying the tolerance and sacrifice of citizens reflect their “deep and great love” for the city.

For now, except for areas that still have a medium to high risk of covid spread, authorities should not limit residents’ movements in and out of their compounds for any reason, and public transport can also resume, according to a statement from the Shanghai government on Monday. State media published reports celebrating Shanghai’s return to normal, featuring images of long queues in front of restaurants and luxury goods shops.

Even though daily life has partially resumed in Shanghai, however, life is probably far from being entirely normal in the city. Restaurants have reopened but dining in is not allowed, while those who want to use public transport or enter public venues need to have a negative covid test result obtained within the last 72 hours, some locals told Quartz. Traveling from Shanghai to other parts of the country also remains difficult, with quarantine required for coming from the city, depending on local rules.

“There is still a lingering shadow left by the lockdown. I feel like we can go back under it anytime now, so I will keep stockpiling goods just in case,” said a white-collar worker in Shanghai who asked not to use their name.

A new normal

While Shanghai residents are at least temporarily free from many covid restrictions, nothing about China’s broader approach to the virus has really changed.

The government has vowed to firmly follow its zero-covid strategy, which involves building of tens of thousands of permanent covid testing and central quarantine facilities across the country; authorities have kept close tabs on residents’ movements through contact tracing apps and other means. In other words, life in China is still different than it is elsewhere in the world as other countries gradually move on from the pandemic. China’s low vaccination rate among the elderly and a lack of a roadmap out of zero-covid could mean it will have to hold onto this approach for a long time, especially given the stability needed to hold a key Communist Party meeting late this year during which Chinese president Xi Jinping will likely announce his third term.

But the side effects of the approach are already surfacing. In addition to an economy hammered by lockdowns, the government will also have to deal with rising dissatisfaction from residents, who say zero-covid is ruining their lives. “I can survive the pandemic, but cannot survive the prevention measures for it,” said a user on China’s question-and-answer website Zhihu.