As years of severe “zero-COVID” restrictions come to an abrupt halt in China, relations between the country’s rulers and the ruled are under strain.
People who once supported zero-COVID have been left wondering what the years of tough restrictions were for now that nearly all the policies put in place to protect people have been dropped and COVID-19 is running rampant through China’s population.
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The surprise policy reversal by President Xi Jinping’s administration has also left some previously apolitical people feeling deeply embittered by their leaders in Beijing.
In China’s biggest city, Shanghai, 31-year-old Ming Li – who asked that her real name not be used – was among those who took to the streets at the end of November to commemorate people killed in an apartment block fire in the western Chinese city of Urumqi.
Those participating blamed strict lockdown policies for the victims being unable to escape the burning apartments and the vigils quickly morphed into street protests throughout urban China. Demonstrators like Ming Li railed against the restrictions, which for nearly three years had defined life in China.
As the protests gained momentum at the end of last year, demands to do away with zero-COVID transformed into also doing away with the leaders who had enforced those policies, said Ming Li, who described to Al Jazeera the moment when the vigil became a full-blown anti-government protest.
She recounted how a man in the crowd of protesters shouted: “Xi Jinping!”.
Ming Li, along with everyone else nearby, responded with: “Step down!”
The man continued to shout, Ming Li said, and the crowd kept responding:
A month after the protests, Ming Li recalled how the demonstration and that chanting was the most intense experience of her life.
That public expression of dissent was also the most overt public display of defiance against the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in more than a generation.
Ming Li described the protests as emerging from a mix of pent-up frustration, desperation and rage that was spontaneously released onto the Chinese streets.
“All that energy was channelled into a call,” she told Al Jazeera.
Those protest calls were “on behalf of all of those that not only wanted a change to the zero-COVID policy but a change to the top of the Chinese leadership as well”, she said.
As Ming Li and her fellow protesters in Shanghai were calling for Xi Jinping to step down, a 23-year-old, whom Al Jazeera will refer to as Chen Wu – joined protesters in Beijing to demand an end to the zero-COVID policy.
Chen Wu, however, did not go as far as the Shanghai protesters who called for Xi to step down.
“That is a very dangerous thing to call for in public in China, and I don’t think things would change if Xi Jinping steps down,” he explained.
“But I do think that the Communist Party should start to share some of their power with the people,” he said.
So, why did he join the protests against COVID-19 restrictions?
“I believe the policy was slowly destroying more lives than it was saving,” he explained.
“And since zero-COVID was promoted by the top leadership then our demand was directed at them.”
The November protests against zero-COVID, along with the anti-government messages that emerged, seemed to catch the Chinese leadership by complete surprise.
Less than two weeks later, the authorities announced the discontinuation of certain key elements of zero-COVID, beginning a process that has now seen most of the policy dismantled.
From apolitical to political
Despite their political demands, both Chen Wu and Ming Li described themselves as being largely apolitical until very recently.
For Ming Li, the turn to being political started with the severe restrictions placed on everyday life in Shanghai in 2022.
The city of 25 million people was locked down almost entirely in April to stymie an outbreak of the Omicron variant. The mega-city stayed in a stifling lockdown for nearly two months. During that time there were stories of forced quarantines, food shortages, separation of children and infants from their parents, and even suicides.
“It was a living nightmare,” Ming Li recalled.
“Before, I had never given political questions much thought but during the lockdown, I started to ask myself what kind of leadership would put its own people through such hell to fight a virus that much of the world had already moved beyond,” she said.
For Chen Wu, a bus crash in Guizhou Province in September was the turning point. The bus was carrying 47 people to a quarantine centre when it overturned on the highway killing 27 of them.
“The accident convinced me that the Communist Party’s zero-COVID policy was killing people and needed to be ended,” he said.
A frayed social contract
It is often said that an unofficial social contract underpins the relationship between the ruling Communist Party and the Chinese people: The CCP guarantees security, stability and economic opportunities and in turn, the citizenry stays out of politics and lets the CCP rule uncontested.
That unspoken contract has been tarnished by the last year of COVID chaos as people’s lives and the Chinese economy took a significant hit.
There are also clear signs of dissatisfaction with authorities, especially since the zero-COVID reversal occurred so soon after the CCP’s 20th Congress in October, which championed the superiority of China’s COVID handling while centralising power in the hands of Xi and those of his close circle who had enforced the strict approach to the pandemic.
The hasty dismantling of zero-COVID has divided people, interviewees told Al Jazeera. It has also divided people into the physically weak and the strong as the virus surges through the country.
What seems to unite all sides, though, is mutual confusion and frustration directed towards authorities over their handling of the pandemic.
Amid the turmoil, Xi, in a speech to mark the New Year called for unity in China’s new approach to combating COVID.
While people like Ming Li and Chen Wu see the end of the COVID measures as steps in the right direction, others are disillusioned by the sudden change.
A 46-year-old from Chengdu, referred to as Xiang Hou, was not fond of the ceaseless COVID restrictions either. But he believed they served a greater good.
“Based on what I heard from the authorities, I thought we were fighting this virus together as a country by giving up some freedoms in order to stay safe so we could avoid all the COVID deaths that they had in Europe and America,” he told Al Jazeera.
As China eased and then dropped COVID restrictions, the messaging from authorities also changed.
It is no longer about China fighting the virus collectively by staying vigilant but about individuals being responsible for their own health.
Xiang Hou thinks the policy and rhetoric changed too quickly, which has left him confused and angry. His parents are elderly and unvaccinated, and he is worried they might not make it through the COVID wave now sweeping through the country.
“I trusted my government to do the right thing but now I am in doubt,” he said.
But 42-year-old Ching Tsao, also a pseudonym, from Guangzhou said she has no doubt: She has lost all faith in the central government.
She had believed in the zero-COVID narrative and willingly gave up much of her social life, including travelling and visiting relatives, to protect the weak and old in Chinese society.
Her grandmother succumbed to the virus at the end of December.
“After all those sacrifices, the government still decided to open up in a very rushed way and now everyone is getting sick and so many are dying,” Ching Tsao said.
“So what were the years of suffering for if we’re all going to get the virus anyway?”