It is hard to talk about China’s Covid Zero Policy in a multidimensional way. The policy is often cast in binary terms – either the reason why millions of lives are saved or the reason why millions of lives and billions of economic output are wasted. As an unprecedented level of protests against Covid Zero enforcements spread across China, it looks like this policy – effective in some situations, terrible in others – will come to an end soon, though not in the way many may have expected.
Thinking through the confluence of events since Covid broke out in Wuhan three years ago, there are many ironies that brought us to today. Professor Yasheng Huang of MIT called out one of them in this zinger of a tweet:
Inspired by this tweet, and perhaps as a vain attempt to discuss Covid Zero’s unraveling in a more multi-dimensional way, I’ll share a few more ironies of Covid Zero that are at least thought-provoking for me.
One main trigger of Covid Zero’s end may be the lockdown and protests in Zhengzhou’s iPhone City – a Foxconn facility of 200,000 workers that makes the majority of Apple’s new iPhones. This is happening right as Apple unveiled its new iPhone Pro line to dominate the upcoming US holiday season. Because of the over-dependence of iPhone’s manufacturing to this one Chinese city, the wait time for a Pro model has reached a historical level of 34 days.
In 2004, Apple began its foray into China by first building manufacturing facilities to make iPods. In order to attract Apple’s investment and business, Chinese government officials ordered the removal of a literal small mountain to build the facility that Apple had wanted. Since then, the co-dependence between Apple and China has been growing ever more intense, with the leverage of the relationship shifting gradually from Apple to China, as China becomes both the single largest Apple product maker and revenue driver.
China’s leverage became so strong that during the bilateral trade war under Trump, Apple steadfastly committed to China, while compromising on various local requirements – from storing Chinese user data in local data centers, to rejecting apps on the App Store that the government deemed objectionable. During the early days of Covid, Tim Cook reiterated on TV that Apple is not shifting away from China. That was, of course, when many around the world thought China’s tough approach to Covid was a shining example of effective disease control (and it was at the time before vaccines) and the disruption to the global supply chain was temporary.
Three years later, China’s leverage on Apple is now eroding by the day thanks to Covid Zero. This erosion has culminated in the Zhengzhou iPhone City lockdown and protests. With workers clashing with authority and leaving the factories, various local governments are becoming glorified Foxconn recruiters, so iPhone City can keep making iPhones. Government officials are once again trying to “move mountains” for Apple, not to win and impress, but to rescue and retain the relationship (and leverage) with the most valuable company in the world by market cap.
The same top-down, can-do authoritarian efficiency that lured Apple to China is ironically what also enabled Covid Zero that may push Apple to leave China.
The single event that triggered the nationwide, anti-Covid Zero protests was a fire in Urumuqi, capital of the Xinjiang region and home to the Muslim Uyghur population. This fire lit the match of a candlelight vigil in Shanghai for the 10 people killed by the fire. This vigil morphed into an anti-Covid protest that triggered other similar protests across 15 provinces on multiple university campuses.
We don’t know how long these protests will continue and how they will end. What we can see is what human rights lawyer, Rayhan Asat, observed to be an “unlikely solidarity” between the Han Chinese and Uyghers. For the first time ever, the Han Chinese population living in Xinjiang have been subjected to a form of discrimination that the local Uyghuer population has been subjected to, in much harsher ways, for many years.
Ever since the Global War on Terror after 9/11, the Chinese government has stepped up its control, discrimination, and forced assimilation of its Muslim Uyghur population, often in the name of fighting terrorism in order to avoid international human rights scrutiny. As the country’s technological capabilities grew, its methods of monitoring and controlling the Uyghur population have become more advanced. (A new book, “Surveillance State”, does a good job of chronicling the evolution of this surveillance system in detail.)
With high-resolution cameras installed everywhere and bleeding-edge AI models deployed in nearby data centers to analyze every image, Xinjiang has arguably the most technologically sophisticated control mechanism of any region in China, if not in the world. Yet, the most mundane of accidents – a fire in an apartment building – could not be controlled and turned into a national outcry, because firefighters couldn’t get past physical barriers and other Covid Zero related restrictions quick enough.
Covid Zero became a common thread of unity in ways that no one could foresee and no AI model could predict. While no one knows how many Han Chinese know (or care) about what’s happening to their Uyghur compatriots in Xinjiang, the fact that this vigil-turned-protest took place on “Urumuqi Street” reveals, ever so subtly, that there’s more Uyghur-Han solidarity than meets the eye.
To make this irony “double-ironic”, the uniting symbol of these protests is a piece of white paper – a blank image with no slogan for even the best street camera with the computer vision AI model to detect and censor.
Discussing Covid Zero through the lens of its ironies may give this post a false sense of levity. There is nothing funny or lighthearted about the policy nor the protests against it. What started out as a public health crisis is now a crisis of public confidence, legitimacy, and right to free expression.
Perhaps the mother of all ironies is that no government has spent more money, energy, and technology producing legitimacy and controlling expression than China’s. Yet no people have devoted more smarts, creativity, and ingenuity to question this legitimacy and circumvent these controls than China’s.
To close on one such example of ingenuity, here’s a picture of several Tsinghua University students, who held up pieces of white paper in protest with one of the Friedmann equations of physical cosmology printed, simply to say that they want to be “free的man” too.