This transcript was prepared by a transcription service. This version may not be in its final form and may be updated.
Ryan Knutson: China has spent the last few years under some of the most rigid COVID restrictions in the world, but in just a matter of weeks, pretty much all those restrictions have been lifted. How dramatic of a pivot is this for China and its citizens?
Brian Spegele: It’s incredibly dramatic.
Ryan Knutson: Our colleague, Brian Spegele reports from Beijing.
Brian Spegele: For hundreds of millions of people here, it’s safe to say there is a feeling of whiplash, of everything that they’ve experienced. The government was really holding fast to the zero-COVID policy, trying to get cases down to zero or as close to zero as they possibly could. Since then, they’ve completely changed course. They relinquished almost all controls that had really guided this country for three years during the pandemic. People are free to move around, spend their money, travel, but at the same time, there is a genuine public health crisis here.
Speaker 3: Ever since China dropped its strict zero-COVID policy this month, cases of COVID-19 have been exploding.
Speaker 4: The country is now buckling under a massive surge.
Speaker 5: Experts fear more than a million people could die over the next few months as the virus tears its way across the country.
Ryan Knutson: Welcome to The Journal, our show about money, business and power, I’m Ryan Knutson. It’s Friday, January 20th. Coming up on the show, China’s U-turn on zero-COVID.
At first, China’s zero-COVID policy seemed to keep the spread of the virus under control.
Brian Spegele: I think based on our interviews at the beginning, and actually for several years, there was a significant amount of pride in zero-COVID for a few reasons. One, there was a sense in China that we’re all sacrificing something to protect the most vulnerable of society, our grandparents essentially. And I think many Chinese people took a tremendous amount of pride in that idea, and they were willing to put up with some really stringent social controls to try to hold fast to it, and I think they felt a great deal of confidence in the central government, Xi Jinping specifically, as a result of that early success.
Ryan Knutson: But in order to maintain zero-COVID, the lockdowns got more intense, especially as the coronavirus became more contagious and most people in China didn’t have access to cutting-edge vaccines and treatments. And Brian says that life under zero-COVID started to feel bleak. He said that in Beijing each day felt like trying to get to the end of an ever-changing obstacle course.
Brian Spegele: You would get up in the morning and you would leave your house, and the first obstacle you’d have to pass would be looking out your window, at the bottom of my apartment building, have any guards set up shop overnight to prevent me from leaving? And that’s something that would happen. You would have guys in white hazmat suits who would say, “Actually, your building is on lockdown for maybe three days, maybe seven days or maybe we’re not going to tell you.” So assuming that didn’t happen, you would then leave your apartment, maybe you’re going to go to work, you get to the office, a guard at the turnstiles of your office is going to check do you have proof of a PCR test within 48 hours, and it would go on and on like this all day.
Ryan Knutson: People who had been exposed at work or in a store could be called up by Chinese officials and forced to quarantine at home or in government-controlled camps, and not allowed to leave for weeks.
Speaker 6: Outside several apartment compounds, fences going up.
Speaker 7: Buildings with positive cases inside, well, they’re locked shut from the outside. They’re using bicycle locks and padlocks.
Speaker 8: China’s biggest city, Shanghai, remains eerily empty. 26 million people under a massive COVID lockdown.
Speaker 7: The food shortages here have worsened. Some shouting, “We’re starving, we are starving.”
Ryan Knutson: The lockdowns were devastating to China’s economy, with millions unable to go to work.
Brian Spegele: It was harmful on several levels, and I think the one that I would really hone in on would be consumer activity. So if you are just anybody in China and you’re thinking about buying, I don’t know, a new car, what is the use of having a new car if you might not even be able to leave your house, at a practical level. And so those sorts of big-ticket items, big investments, I think you’re going to think twice about them.
Ryan Knutson: Eventually, Chinese citizens started to get fed up and started calling for an end to zero-COVID.
Speaker 9: The wave of protests sweeping China has reached the streets of Shanghai in the country’s largest city, demonstrators demanding an end to COVID lockdowns and daring to openly call for the resignation of Chinese leader Xi Jinping.
Ryan Knutson: Calls to end zero-COVID got louder. And it wasn’t just Chinese citizens asking for change, it was also businesses.
Brian Spegele: Foxconn, the maker of iPhones, they sent a letter to the central government, imploring them to reevaluate this policy. You want to get China’s attention, think about you hit at their role in the global supply chain, this clearly got their attention as well.
Ryan Knutson: Still, it didn’t seem like China was likely to change its approach anytime soon.
Brian Spegele: Some of the top leaders of China were continuing to speak very forcefully about the need to adhere to and stick very closely to zero-COVID. None of this gave us any indication that they were getting ready for some sort of dramatic departure.
Ryan Knutson: Then, one day in December, as Brian began his typical morning routine and headed out of his apartment, something was different.
Brian Spegele: For quite a long time in zero-COVID, there was these testing booths set up on street corners throughout the city of Beijing, that you would go and you would get your throat swabbed by a medical professional for free. And then the next morning, you would wake up and you would have your hopefully negative result. Those booths just started disappearing one day off the street with very little explanation of what was going on. So that was a clear sign that something was up, something big was up. And there was real confusion, I think, at that time. Is this the end? Is it not the end? And I think for many people who lived in Beijing, nobody could quite believe it truly was the end.
Ryan Knutson: Was there an official announcement from the Chinese government that zero-COVID is now over?
Brian Spegele: My recollection is no. There was never a moment where they said, “We made any mistake on zero-COVID.” That was never said, and it was always around adjusting and optimizing the response, which is often the way the party speaks about these things.
Ryan Knutson: So did the Chinese government say anything about why they made this decision?
Brian Spegele: Publicly, there’s been very little transparency.
Ryan Knutson: The U-turn was dramatic. After years of strict lockdowns, local governments around the country began dropping requirements one by one, like in the southwestern city of Chongqing.
Brian Spegele: The city government puts out this remarkable statement that said something to the effect of, “If you’re a city government worker and you have just a mild case of COVID, we think you can probably still go to the office and it’s okay.”
Ryan Knutson: Even if you have COVID?
Brian Spegele: Yes.
Ryan Knutson: Wow.
Brian Spegele: Exactly.
Ryan Knutson: What was the reaction among Chinese people?
Brian Spegele: It was a mix of things. I was in Beijing at the time, and I would describe it two ways. First, everybody was sick. That was the first reaction, everybody got sick all at once.
Ryan Knutson: Uh-huh.
Brian Spegele: The second thing was, okay, if you recovered, and as most people do, especially with omicron, had mild cases, I think there was a moment of scratching, everyone scratched their heads and they said, “Okay. Now what?”
Ryan Knutson: What happens when a country lifts its restrictions all at once? That’s next. As the COVID lockdowns lifted, Brian noticed a difference immediately.
Brian Spegele: Toward the end of December, beginning of January, all of a sudden the streets of Beijing start to fill back up. I went to a restaurant in Beijing, and for the first time in months and months and months, I had to wait for a table. They took my name down and they said, “We don’t have a table for you.” That would’ve been unimaginable to me just even six weeks ago,
Ryan Knutson: And it’s not just in Beijing. Brian traveled outside the capitol to see what’s going on in the rest of the country. His first stop was that city in the southwest, Chongqing.
Brian Spegele: What I found was a city that really wanted to get back to normal. I found an atmosphere that was actually pretty festive, all things considered. If people had two pennies to rub together and they could go out to a hotpot restaurant where they could do whatever, they were wanting to go and do it, they were wanting to go and make up for all the lost time they had spent sitting in their apartments.
Ryan Knutson: But now, COVID is spreading like wildfire.
Brian Spegele: What we do know is that based on leaked government meeting minutes, which The Journal has verified that there was something like 250 million cases in the month of December, really in just those few weeks after they relinquish pandemic controls.
Ryan Knutson: 250 million cases. I mean, that’s almost the entire population of the United States all at the same time getting COVID.
Brian Spegele: That’s right.
Ryan Knutson: How many people in China are dying as a result of this?
Brian Spegele: A lot of people are dying. China put out data that said 60,000 people had died in Chinese medical institutions of COVID-related illnesses, I believe since the beginning of December. So since effectively the policy was modified. There are some estimates that we’ve quoted in The Journal that say that as many as 2 million Chinese could die over time as a result of the scrapping of these policies.
Ryan Knutson: Brian says the fatality rate in China appears to be relatively low right now because omicron is less deadly and because more people are vaccinated. While Brian was in Chongqing, he met a woman who owns a coffee shop outside an emergency room that was full of COVID patients.
Brian Spegele: We start chatting, and on one hand, she’s a business owner, and her business had been completely clobbered by zero-COVID. So like many business owners, small business owners, she’d been desperate to reopen. But then, all of a sudden, it does reopen and she says to me, “There’s this great contradiction that we’re now seeing. We had been so desperate to open up for so long, but now we look around and we see family friends of ours dying of COVID.” And I guess they didn’t expect that that would happen or that it wouldn’t happen so fast. The criticism now has moved on to why so abrupt? Why so erratic? Why did you not know? Why did you not prepare better? For example, why are we seeing things like shortages of Paxlovid and other medications that could be used to treat serious cases of COVID? You’re thinking about your parents, you’re thinking about your elderly relatives, and I think there’s a lot of soul-searching in China right now about why the government was not more prepared. They had three years to get ready for this moment.
Ryan Knutson: Well, things are bad in cities, they could be even worse in rural areas.
Brian Spegele: I think the concern for the government is, and I think what we’re seeing evidence of them preparing for is a wave that comes over the Chinese countryside.
Ryan Knutson: Has that happened yet?
Brian Spegele: It’s happening right now, it’s happening right now. We had a doctor in a hospital in the city of Chongqing telling us people had been showing up to the city hospital seeking treatment because the ventilators in the countryside were all full, which would point to quite a serious situation in the countryside.
Ryan Knutson: Chinese health officials have described the reopening as well timed and said, pharmaceutical companies are working to manufacture cold medicines and develop drugs to treat COVID. What does this say about how China handled the pandemic overall?
Brian Spegele: Sorry, I’m going to think about this a little bit. Give me a second, this is a tough question, Ryan. I think what it shows is China had a playbook that they used to approach the pandemic in the beginning, and for whatever reason, the system was not able to evolve the playbook when the situation, when the facts on the ground changed. But I think what China would argue is that the fact that it was able to delay the reopening as long as it did to save lives. I think what the government would argue is that every day that we delayed the reopening, we were able to vaccinate X number more of elderly people. That’s what they would argue.
Ryan Knutson: What are people in China saying about how the country handled the pandemic in the end of zero-COVID?
Brian Spegele: So especially in big cities like Beijing where I live, they’re happy that it’s over, they’re happy that zero-COVID is over, but there are certainly, many people are not happy with the U-turn being so abrupt, especially if you’ve had a family member who has gotten seriously ill. So no, I wouldn’t say we’re at a point where people are overjoyed with what the government has done over the last few weeks. There is certainly a sense of, “It’s open, let’s enjoy our lives,” especially if people have gotten sick and recovered. But at the same time, there is this head scratching. There is this sense of concern about the erratic nature of the reopening, how this was thought out, how well it was thought out, and just why so abrupt? Why was there no advanced warning? Yeah, I think that’s what many people are feeling, or they’re telling me at least.
Ryan Knutson: That’s all for today, Friday, January 20th. Additional reporting in this episode by (inaudible) Li and Karen Hao. The Journal is a co-production of Gimlet and The Wall Street Journal. Your hosts are Kate Linebaugh and me, Ryan Knutson. The show’s produced by Annie Baxter, Ariana Boe, Katherine Brewer, Maria Byrne, Pia Gadkari, Rachel Humphreys, Matt Kwong, Annie Minoff, Laura Morris, Afeef Nessouli, Enrique Perez de la Rosa, Sarah Platt, Alan Rodriguez Espinoza, Pierce Singgih, Jeevika Verma, Lisa Wang and Catherine Whelan. With help from Jonathan Sanders. Our engineers are Griffin Tanner, Nathan Singapok, and Peter Leonard. Our theme music is by So Wylie. Additional music this week from Katherine Anderson, Marcus Bagala, Peter Leonard, Bobby Lord, Emma Munger, Nathan Singapok and Blue Dot Sessions. Fact checking by Nicole Pasulka. Thanks for listening, see you Monday.