China's endless lockdowns remind some of the Mao era

Both the NY Times and the Washington Post published stories today about the ongoing lockdowns in China and the problems they are creating for the country’s economy and for the unspoken contract China has had with its most well-off citizens in Shanghai. Collectively, they present a picture of a society forced to reckon with the downside of authoritarian rule in ways that it hasn’t had to before.


Yesterday, WHO director Tedros Ghebreyesus said China’s lockdowns were “unsustainable.” His comments were quickly censored on the Chinese internet and he was rebuked by the country’s foreign policy spokesman. But while China can effectively suppress critical messages coming from outside the country, it’s harder to keep a lid on widespread anger building inside the country.

In a surreal scene on the front steps of a locked-down Shanghai apartment complex, a resident in a bright red rain jacket, mask and face visor lectured a team of hazmat-clad Chinese officials about the limits of state power.

With the vocal support of his neighbors, he expressed frustration over the quarantine measures locking people in their homes, arguing that state authority is bound by what the law authorizes. “I want to ask you, which clause of which of our country’s laws gives you this power?” he said, according to a video of the incident posted Monday and widely shared online.

The impromptu legal lecture comes amid a fresh wave of resentment over state overreach in Shanghai, where, in a bid to end China’s worst coronavirus outbreak since 2020, the city government this week further tightened restrictions in certain districts. In some areas, residential buildings and shops have been boarded up. Officials confiscated house keys to prevent isolation jailbreaks, while the empty homes of those put into centralized quarantine have been turned upside down as they are doused with disinfectant…

“The tacit agreement between us has been broken,” said a Shanghai-based Chinese journalist who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of repercussions. “Originally, you let me live a happy life, I wouldn’t do things against your interests, but that kind of trust no longer exists. I think that could be the most serious issue [caused by lockdown].”


The video of the man in the red raincoat really is remarkable because he’s lecturing authorities that they have no legal justification for much of what they’re doing and arguing that China is a place that should be ruled by laws not by men.

The man in red expresses four basic points in a methodical manner: 1. The exercise of public power needs to be authorized by law. 2. “Hard isolation” blocks fire passages, violating the Fire Protection Law. 3. It is illegal for public security officers to wear uniforms to participate in “hard isolation”. 4. “Hard isolation” has no legal basis, so the residents of the community expressed their refusal.

He concluded his lecture by saying, “It’s as simple as that, there must be a basis for doing things, not leaders do whatever they want, and it’s not an era of lawlessness.” Here’s what that scene looked like.

But in fact that’s not how China operates at all. China operates based on the will and the orders of one man who is self-consciously trying to make himself the most significant leader since Mao.

“It definitely has overtones of the ‘great leap forward’ in the 1950s where politics is in command,” said Carl Minzner, a senior fellow for China studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, referring to Mao Zedong’s disastrous campaign to catch up with industrialized nations’ steel and grain production that ended in mass famine.

And because that’s how things actually operate, you get scenes like this one reporter by the NY Times.


Even as daily virus cases in Shanghai are steadily dropping, authorities have tightened measures in recent days following Mr. Xi’s call last week to double down. Officials also began to force entire residential buildings into government isolation if just one resident tested positive.

The new measures are harsher than those early on in the pandemic and have been met with pockets of unrest, previously rare in China where citizens have mostly supported the country’s pandemic policies.

In one video widely circulated online before it was taken down by censors, an exasperated woman shouts as officials in white hazmat suits smash her door down to take her away to an isolation facility. She protests and asks them to give her evidence that she has tested positive. Eventually she takes her phone to call the police.

“If you called the police,” one of the men replies, “I’d still be the one coming.”

The police aren’t there to protect you from the lawless intrusion by the government, the police are just part of the lawless intrusion by the government. If it wasn’t clear to residents of Shanghai that this is how China actually operates before the lockdowns started, it’s becoming clearer to them now. Here are a couple of recent videos showing exactly what the situation is like.


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