China’s new covid slogan is a U-turn on two years of “people’s war” against the virus

Beijing is telling its citizens: You're on your own now

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A woman wearing a mask walks outside the Shanghai Railway Station in China.
Photo: Aly Song (Reuters)

A new slogan crystallizes Beijing’s new approach to the covid pandemic: “Be the first person responsible for your own health.”

The implicit meaning is clear. Now that the Chinese government has broadly eased coronavirus restrictions, infections are surging nationwide—and individual citizens should deal with it, by themselves, as best they can.


Or, to put it more bluntly: You’re on your own now.

From a “people’s war” to an individual’s fight

It’s a far cry from Beijing’s declaration of a “people’s war” against covid, launched with zeal in the early days of the pandemic. Back then, officials and state propaganda had hailed the all-out response to the coronavirus as a vindication of China’s strong “collectivist spirit.”


Commenting on the successful elimination of covid cases by swiftly locking Wuhan down in January 2020, Xinhua, the official news agency, noted in March that year that it “could not have been achieved without the practice of collectivism by the Chinese people.”

The Chinese Communist Party’s emphasis on collectivism, and the attendant grand bargain it forced onto the populace—to endure draconian lockdowns and curbs on civil liberties in exchange for the protection of human lives—has now given way to a much more laissez-faire approach to public health.

There is an irony here, too, that Beijing will likely play down: The individualistic approach to covid is one that the US has taken, with an emphasis on individual responsibility over population-wide policy.

Nor are authorities likely to mention that the late doctor Li Wenliang acted out of a sense of personal responsibility when, in December 2019, he blew the whistle on covid, reporting a cluster of mysterious pneumonia cases only to be officially reprimanded for “spreading rumors.”


“Be the first person responsible for your own health”

Though the phrase “Be the first person responsible for your own health” [自己健康第一责任人] has appeared in state media outlets since at least last summer (link in Chinese), it has picked up in both frequency and prominence this week, following Beijing’s sweeping changes to its anti-covid apparatus last Wednesday (Dec. 7).


A People’s Daily commentary on Monday (Dec. 12), a day before China scrapped its nationwide contact tracing app, repeatedly urged people (link in Chinese) to be responsible for their own health. In the days since, the phrase has been repeated in news articles and public notices nationwide.

The government of Liaoning province, for example, has urged everyone to firmly adopt the concept of personal health responsibility. Guangzhou Daily, the southern province’s newspaper, has urged the same, as has one of the state television broadcaster’s anchors (links in Chinese).


In case anyone missed the memo, People’s Daily wrote another commentary (link in Chinese) centered on the phrase today: “This is another reminder that everyone is the first person responsible their own health.”

According to the Economist, local committees have even sent letters to some Beijing residents asking them to stop reporting fevers and coughs, wishing them good luck, and thanking them for “the past three years of support and understanding.”


Personal responsibility requires personal liberties

One thing is certain: China faces a massive wave of covid cases, with experts forecasting infections to peak early next year. Deaths will mount. Hospitals will be strained. And if other countries are any guide, China’s workforce will fall ill, shrink, and become less productive.


Even as this is happening, there will be less visibility of it all. Just today (Dec. 14), health authorities said they will cease publishing numbers of asymptomatic covid cases. That will make it harder for individuals to assess the changing covid situation, weigh relative risks of exposures, and adjust their behavior to mitigate those risks.

Beijing’s new pandemic mantra of personal responsibility may give authorities cover as infections rip through the country. But a prerequisite for individual responsibility is personal liberties—something China is unlikely to expand anytime soon.