The implementation of the Zero-COVID policy in Tibet was so bad that the authorities had to apologize. Citizen journalists told the truth to the world.
by Tenzin Boepa
During the initial reports on the spread of COVID-19, which emerged in China in 2019, the nation’s government attempted to place a blanket cover on the flow of the relevant information, which delayed the international response. Chinese health officials declared the outbreak as “preventable and under control.” As a consequence, we have lost 6.55 million lives from 2019 to 2021 worldwide.
The outbreak in Wuhan undermined the social contract that underpins the Chinese Communist Party’s legitimacy. It carried out extensive restrictions in the form of lockdown and home quarantines, and established chaotic mass testing centers in public spaces, conducting mandatory COVID-19 tests on people once a day and within a couple of days from each other. Chinese netizens boldly expressed concerns over the lack of accountability and severe internet restrictions, and appealed to all overseas netizens for help to create public pressure on Beijing. Netizens showed their discontent publicly, with major protests in Chinese cities including Shanghai and Chengdu expressing genuine grievances.
The underlying rationale for Xi’s stubborn adherence to his “Zero-COVID” policy is that he was afraid the spread of COVID-19 may become a challenge to his attempt to consolidate his power beyond the established two-term tenure for the post of Party’s General Secretary and to be elected for a third term.
Under the guise of Zero-COVID policy, major cities in China including Shenzhen and Chengdu announced lockdowns after 35 and 156 new cases were reported there respectively. But this led to strict lockdowns in a city of 17.5 million and one of 21 million. Beijing’s attempt to control the spread of COVID-19 will remain an overriding priority, but at a great cost.
The outbreak and subsequent restriction came on the eve of the 20th National Congress of the CCP. “Zero-COVID” refers to the Chinese government’s approach of imposing harsh blanket lockdowns in entire villages and even large cities when infections are found. This approach has come at great economic cost to China. The economic activity in regions under lockdown has come to a standstill. China’s policy has kept deaths and infection numbers low but it has led to a wave of indiscriminate human right violations.
State media went into overdrive to portray China as leading the fight against COVID-19 internationally. Beijing’s propaganda has used a spectrum of narrative approaches to craft news coverage, commentary, and descriptions of China’s response to eliminate COVID-19. Ensuring that the CCP and PRC government are seen to be responsive, in control, and winning against this fight is paramount. In reality, these positive messages are often mixed with others that are neutral, hateful, and negative.
COVID-19 continues to be intensely monitored and vigorously discussed by China’s active social media users. Digital media have provided pockets of spaces beyond state control for the voicing of the people’s concerns and criticism.
The Shoton, or Yogurt Festival was scheduled this year in Lhasa from mid-August, and should have featured the unveiling of a large, embroidered thangka portrait of the Buddha on a hillside outside Lhasa’s Drepung monastery. Tibetan devotees were excited to see the precious thangka and celebrate the festival. However the tourists and locals got unpleasant news when Chinese authorities abruptly announced a lockdown of the entire city over an outbreak of the highly infectious BA.5 Omicron virus sub-variant. It has affected tens of thousands tourists and residents. This is an example of China’s clumsily executed Zero-COVID policy, which has taken a heavy toll on the population.
The influx of Chinese tourists to Tibet had sparked the flame of COVID outbreaks there. All the individuals infected are reported to have been travelers, including on the train route between Shigatse and Lhasa, as well as between Lhasa and Nyingtri. Han Chinese are not especially immune from contagion, all precautions notwithstanding.
Although China’s control over the internet and its surveillance network is formidable, the outbreak of the COVID-19 saw an emergence of content, narratives, and expressions of online criticism against the government at a level that had not been seen for decades. Tibetan citizen journalists forthrightly shared their genuine grievances and pleas to end the hard COVID measures. While Lhasa continues to stay at home under strict lockdown in Tibet, videos are appearing showing their desperation and frustration that have gone viral.
Tibet Autonomous Region battling the record COVID wave surge and Beijing’s harsh countermeasures to tackle it have imposed immense hardships on the lifestyle and livelihoods of Tibetans, making the curbs unpopular. Public sentiment has triggered a wave of anger and confusion online among residents of Tibet. Social media are flooded with unprecedented criticism against the authorities mishandling the epidemic situation in Lhasa. Angry criticisms posted on these platforms is censored by the internet police, including complaints about feeding unhygienic and rotten food and woeful conditions in quarantine camps.
Imposing a severe crackdown on Tibetans for “spreading COVID rumors” and their grievances online has led to the arrest of a few Tibetans. This has created or reignited outrage over the Communist Party’s lack of transparency and accountability.
What makes these arrests notable and disturbing is that they were preceded by emphatic official announcements by China’s top leadership that the Party would tighten its ideological control, which were followed by a strong endorsement from Chinese authorities on the validity of prosecuting individuals for online “rumor-mongering” and “spreading misinformation.” Yet the censoring of information as well as the suppression of voices critical of the government’s policies continues to this day.
The Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) called on “Beijing to adequately acknowledge the public criticisms made by Tibetans, who have genuinely expressed their frustration at the lack of sufficient facilities, and protect them from reprisals for expressing their honest opinions about the government’s mismanagement.”
Netizens in an outburst of open despair have gone viral on Weibo and DouYin. A Tibetan woman is seen there making an open appeal to local authorities, “complaining about shortages of food supply, lack of proper medical care, and impoverished quarantine centers.”
The outcry of another Tibetan woman in social media constructively criticized the substandard management of COVID in Lhasa’s quarantine center. She presented a general overview of the reality. Her outcry speaks volume about old people being treated like criminals instead of patients. If the authorities are incapable of “proper management” and exhibit a “lack of coordination,” she pleaded, then they should allow those who test positive to isolate themselves in their homes. “Even if they die, they can at least die in their homes more peacefully.”
After a string of complaints went viral online, on September 17, 2022, in a rare show of regret, during a media briefing Dradul, executive Deputy Mayor of Lhasa, publicly apologized for not tackling the COVID situation well in regards to prevention and control. Acknowledging the government’s failure, and that they had not been given sufficient supplies, vindicated the public outcry about serious mismanagement and the gravity of the COVID situation.
Tenzin Choezin, the youngest member of the Tibetan Parliament in Exile, showed her genuine concerns and said: ”In stark contrast to the Chinese government’s narrative of winning its war against the pandemic through the ‘Zero-COVID Policy,’ the reality on the ground tells a very different story, one that indicates a massive failure of the Chinese Communist Party. The mismanagement and deliberate mistreatment of the Tibetan people inside Tibet is apparent through the many personal accounts shared on social media platforms like Weibo and DouYin by persons who risk persecution by expressing their grief and frustration against the multiform oppression and inhumane treatments under the garb of ‘Zero-COVID Policy.’ As an elected representative, I stand with the Central Tibetan Administration’s move to express solidarity toward the Tibetan people currently affected by the policy, and ask to extend medical assistance and supplies to our people inside Tibet that are severely affected by the pandemic and the failed policies.”
Faced with the extreme hardships endured under China’s Zero-COVID policy management, despite the fact that the authorities issued a public apology, some Tibetans were arrested. In a span of two days, five people took their lives by jumping to their deaths in various parts of Lhasa and its suburbs according to sources of International Campaign for Tibet.
Today, in the age of social media with a global network of online supporters at disposal, protests are no longer “local.” This fast and unpredictable reach of activists certainly has Beijing worried. Consequently, China has been cracking down hard on internet users who demonstrate sympathy and support for the Tibetan cause, blocking avenues for the spread of all relevant information. The sharing of crucial information through these communication channels allowed people to get a clearer view of reality in Tibet. The connectivity that internet and social media has throughout the globalised world has assisted Tibetans in Tibet to break the psychological barrier of fear by helping many to connect and share information.
From media posts about the government’s mismanagement of the pandemic to the lack of spaces for freedom of expression. along with the state-led suppression of the same, Tibetan citizen journalists have come forward to vent their desires and frustrations. The Chinese Government is using the guise of COVID protocol to further repress the Tibetans and curtail their fundamental freedom. Beijing prioritizes censorship and social control over the wellbeing of Tibetans. This demonstrates their failed policy and deliberate attempt to wipe out resistance before, during, and immediately after the 20th Congress.