Lockdowns spark signs of defiance among China’s restless youth

COVID restrictions in Shanghai, a city of 26 million people (equivalent to the entire population of Australia) have eased after two months of lockdown. However, the longer-term effects of this lockdown will affect the People’s Republic of China’s outlook for years to come.

China’s zero COVID policy has exacerbated the disillusionment of the urban and educated youth. Consequently, young people are not responding well to the government’s efforts to build up a skilled workforce or the incentives to have more children to slow the ageing population. This will undermine China’s economic and social development.

A Shanghai couple line up for COVID testing as the lockdown eases in the Chinese city.Credit:AP

The Shanghai lockdown was incredibly disruptive. At the onset, the announcement left little time for residents to prepare. Initially, the lockdown was only supposed to be a week-long staggered affair. Accordingly, many were unable to prepare sufficient provisions. Unlike lockdowns in Australia, residents in Shanghai were not allowed to leave their homes even for groceries. In the end, most had to rely on government-provided food supplies, which were sporadic and varied in quantity and quality between neighbourhoods.

Lining up for mandatory PCR tests became a daily routine. Those who tested positive were taken to quarantine centres. Shocking stories emerged from these experiences, ranging from health workers killing pets, to the separation of children from parents, to the lack of toilet and shower facilities.

And for those with chronic or emergency health conditions, accessing healthcare and medication became a huge challenge, with medical resources re-deployed to enforce quarantine measures instead. This has led to deaths and suicides.

Pedestrians in Shanghai’s business district. A spike in cases last week fanned concern the city would be plunged back into lockdown.

Pedestrians in Shanghai’s business district. A spike in cases last week fanned concern the city would be plunged back into lockdown. Credit:Bloomberg

Despite the easing of restrictions after two months of lockdown, great uncertainty remains for Shanghai residents. PCR testing every three days is required for those wishing to venture outside. Draconian quarantine measures are still in place for those testing positive. And snap lockdowns are still possible for neighbourhoods.

Such uncertainty exacts a huge toll on young people, with some wanting to leave China permanently while others becoming less motivated to work.

Even before the COVID lockdown, young middle-class people in Shanghai were facing increasing societal pressures. They’re expected to find a respectable white-collar job, work excessively long hours, earn a good income, and raise children in a hyper-competitive society. The pressure and stress of day-to-day living has led to the rise of a “lying flat” (tangping) movement — a rejection of hyper-competition and consumerism. But of course, few can actually afford to “lie flat” and reject societal expectations entirely.

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