A return to the days of the Cultural RevolutionPARK SUNG-HOON
The author is a Beijing correspondent of the JoongAng Ilbo.
The lockdown in Shanghai was lifted on June 1, but the impact of China’s zero-Covid policy is still serious. Beijing also had to endure inconvenience for over a month as control on par with the lockdown was enforced. China’s latest measures have raised doubts in many ways.
First, let’s look at the PCR test. In Beijing, more than 20 million people have gotten PCR tests almost every day for the past one month, with only dozens of confirmed cases a day. How much did the tests cost? State-run China News Weekly reported that the country has completed about 11.5 billion tests since the pandemic. The total cost was up to 1.72 trillion yuan ($1.37 billion) per year, or 1.5 percent of China’s GDP.
The bigger issue is who pays. Last week, Chinese health authorities made it clear that local governments are responsible for costs. A small city in Sichuan Province has conducted tests on 620,000 residents that cost 3.5 yuan per person, which accounts for nearly 10 percent of the city’s annual budget. But as tax revenue has decreased due to the decrease in real estate transactions and various tax deductions, local governments suffer severe losses.
While China pushes for zero-Covid policy, the power of resident groups called regional committees has surfaced. They are supplementary government organizations to manage residents by grouping two to three apartment complexes together. Beijing announced some guidelines, but the level of on-site lockdown depended on the decisions of the committees. Even residents had to get entry and exit permission from the committees. Clashes occurred in some areas as the regional committees maintained lockdowns to show excessive loyalty to the government.
In the meantime, a red light is blinking for the economy. The biggest problem is unemployment as seen in a number of news articles about a young man with a Ph.D. from Beijing University taking a local civil service exam. This year saw a total of 10.76 million college graduates, a record in history. The unemployment rate for people aged between 16 and 24 is 18.2 percent, also the highest in history.
The zero-Covid policy is one of the most controversial among Chinese government initiatives. After Premier Li Keqiang and Vice Premier Liu He said the economy was more important than the pandemic, the media linked it to a possible crack in the leadership. Residents and college students protested the draconian mitigation, but Beijing did not back down. The zero-Covid policy revealed how local governments and their subordinate organizations were mobilized to push for the agenda. The Cultural Revolution that mobilized the Red Guards in the 1960s was not made possible by chance.