‘No end in sight’: In Beijing, fears of Shanghai-style lockdown

Officials in Chinese capital have designated 518 coronavirus outbreak sites amid growing fears of a city-wide lockdown.

barricades in Beijing covid
Beijing is rolling out increasingly strict measures to control outbreaks of COVID-19 [File: Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters]

Beijing, China – When Zhou Huan received a notification that his Beijing neighbourhood would be locked down from the evening of April 25, his first thought was getting back to his convenience store to get supplies.

Nearly two weeks into the restrictions, Zhou’s store has become a lifeline in his community of about 500 people.

Although delivery services have continued throughout the capital, as many as 200 residents visit his convenience store every day to buy food items, drinking water and other necessities, driving daily sales close to pre-lockdown figures of up to RMB 10,000 ($1,500).

“It is good that I can still bulk-order items from our supplier,” Zhou told Al Jazeera. “It’s also good that my neighbours come here quite often and make up for the loss of my regular customers — the workers of those commercial towers here in Shuangjing, but they’re all closed until who knows when.”

Zhou’s neighbourhood in Outer Guangqumen Road lies within the nearly two square-kilometre “outbreak site” in southeastern Chaoyang District that has become one of the latest COVID-19 epicentres in the capital.

Beijing currently has 518 such restricted areas, where cases have been identified, or close contacts live or have visited.

Beijing subway station
Beijing authorities have closed more than 40 subway stations and 158 bus routes to control a growing number of COVID-19 outbreaks in the city [File: Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters]

Although the capital has yet to impose a city-wide lockdown of the sort that has sparked food shortages and rare displays of civil unrest in Shanghai, much of the city has been brought to a standstill. Authorities on Wednesday shut more than 40 subway stations and 158 bus routes, adding to a growing list of measures that include erecting barricades around residential areas, banning indoor dining, and shuttering many cinemas, malls and gyms.

Many businesses and residents fear that harsher measures could soon be on the way.

“We are trying to plan, but we cannot plan for everything. Small businesses, including ours, still need to deliver but our resources are getting limited by the day,” a business consultant, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told Al Jazeera, expressing concern about the uncertainty in the capital and the strain being put on the resources of small and medium enterprises (SMEs).

While a protracted fight against the pandemic has forced SMEs to be “nimble, innovative, and able to pivot quickly” to survive, she said she was concerned about keeping above water in the months ahead.

“I don’t imagine the rest of the year being easy at all.”

After the disruption of shutting down Shanghai, another city-wide lockdown would deal a serious blow to business confidence at a time when the economic costs of Beijing’s “dynamic zero-COVID” strategy are becoming increasingly visible.

China’s services sector activity shrank at the second-steepest rate on record in April, a private-sector survey showed on Thursday.

The Caixin services purchasing managers’ index (PMI) stood at 36.2 last month, the second-lowest since the survey begun in November 2005 and down from 42 in March. The index hit a record low of 26.5 in February 2020 during the onset of the pandemic.”.

“Businesses have already indicated that they have had to delay or decrease investments due to the Shanghai lockdowns and this will only be exacerbated if the same occurs in Beijing,” Sally Xu, a policy analyst  at the British Chamber of Commerce in China, told Al Jazeera.

“There is also the impact on sentiment about China as a viable and attractive international business destination, with continued lockdowns and uncertainty impacting employee morale and business confidence in the ability to grow and expand in the China market,” Xu added.

Starbucks Beijing
International brands including Starbucks have reported plummeting sales in China due to the country’s strict COVID controls [File: Thomas Peter/Reuters]

On Wednesday, Starbucks and Yum China, the local owner of the KFC and Pizza Hut brands, warned of falling sales due to the continuing lockdowns.

For Mary Peng, the owner of a veterinary clinic in the capital, the situation looks even grimmer when referring to the so-called “COVID map”, which shows all locations flagged as outbreak sites.

Peng likens the red pins on the map, which can be searched on the messaging app WeChat, to “freckles waiting to converge into a large spot”. When that happens, “residents will realise, ‘Seriously, we are all locked down,’” she told Al Jazeera.

Peng said her business has carried on due to her regular patrons who have stockpiled animal food and new customers from other veterinary clinics that have closed. But she is also concerned about the “unclear decision-making process” towards handling pets whose owners test positive or need to quarantine, following viral videos of animals being exterminated in locked-down areas in Shanghai and other cities.

Desperate to avoid the logistical nightmare that has brought Shanghai to its knees since early March, local authorities have rolled out increasingly stringent regulations to contain the outbreaks.

As well as shutting down transport routes and boarding up residential compounds, authorities have suspended in-class instruction at schools. Public parks require visitors to show a negative COVID test result produced within the last 48 hours while all restaurants remain closed for dine-in customers. In the Sanlitun shopping area, restaurants deliver take-out to customers sitting on benches.

Chinese president Xi Jinping
Chinese President Xi Jinping has defended the ultra-strict “dynamic zero-COVID” policy as necessary to save lives [File: Andy Wong/AP]

Despite the mounting economic and social costs, Chinese leader Xi Jinping has repeatedly ruled out living with the virus like the rest of the world, calling on officials to put “people first and life first”. Mainland Chinese authorities have reported fewer than 5,200 COVID deaths, a figure that many health experts believe is a vast underestimate given the experience with the virus elsewhere.

Whether or not Beijing can avoid Shanghai’s fate, some observers believe the damage has already been done in terms of the city’s allure to international businesses and talent.

Peng said her expatriate clientele is waning, and she often finds herself advising those planning to leave to prepare to shell out as much as RMB 50,000 ($7,500) and fight for scarce commercial flights or air cargo that can take animals.

“There are virtually zero foreign arrivals in Beijing this summer,” Peng said. “The policies are like a moving target — businesses and organisations just cannot pin them down. And the fallout and the fear of other unintended consequences will bleed small businesses dry.”

“If you’re an expatriate, you have chosen to live in China, but what about the locals?” the business consultant said. “What do they do? There’s no end in sight. At the end of the day, it will drag on and be painful going forward until they’ll end up feeling, ‘There’s no reason to be here any more.’”

For Zhou, the convenience store owner, there is an anxious wait for what comes next.

“I’ve watched what happened in Shanghai,” Zhou said. “I hope it doesn’t happen in Beijing. But, of course, it depends on the government. Look, the entrance to our neighbourhood is blocked, and once kuaidi [delivery people] services are halted, then my supplies can only last for three days. After that, I don’t know what happens to me.”

Source: Al Jazeera