For years, people complied with government demands, but quietly, the indignities of endless P.C.R. tests and daily inconveniences piled up. Many believed Covid barricades were to blame for the deaths of at least 10 people, including children, in an Urumqi apartment fire in November. (Authorities deny this.) The sight of unmasked crowds reveling at the World Cup, too, made people realize that, contrary to the dire depictions on state media, the rest of the world was again enjoying a relatively normal existence. Upset and exhausted, people poured into the streets, demanding an end to lockdowns, forcing Mr. Xi’s hand.
China’s economic woes, no doubt, were a crucial motivation in Mr. Xi’s abandonment of the quixotic race for “zero Covid.” Still, it will be hard for Chinese officials to avoid the impression that they’ve bent to demands for liberties they had scorned.
And now what? Despite all the energy spent enforcing lockdowns, scrubbing the internet and surveilling citizens, China has not done enough to get people vaccinated or expand hospital capacity. If deaths and hospitalizations multiply as a patchily vaccinated public mingles, Chinese people may complain that, despite years of nationalistic rhetoric, their leaders failed to take the most obvious steps to protect their health.
But let’s put the governments aside and focus on the people. Through all the vagaries of their leaders’ rhetoric and programs, neither the Chinese nor the American population stuck to their expected script.
Chinese people got fed up with endless isolation and demanded, at considerable risk, greater civil liberties. Some Americans, meanwhile, lamented — despite emerging evidence of the extreme harm done to kids’ education and mental health by the closures — their own leaders’ failure to impose even stricter controls.
It makes me recall when I was dispatched to a Shanghai high school years ago to report on the world’s highest-scoring standardized test takers. I was taken aback by the unexpected humility of the Chinese educational experts I interviewed. They fretted that students weren’t learning to think creatively — that Chinese youth, while technically flawless, might still struggle to compete in fields that required innovation.
American parents peered anxiously at China’s STEM training, but Chinese people were looking back with their own anxieties.