Lockdown of Chinese City Leaves 13 Million Stranded: Residents of Xi’an voice desperation under restrictions that recall the closing of Wuhan in 2020

A week and a half into one of the biggest pandemic lockdowns in China, residents of Xi’an voiced desperation online about challenges in getting food and medical care.

China’s Covid-19 count remains low in comparison with other countries, hovering at around 100 a day. In the past few days, about 90% of cases have been in Xi’an, the city of terracotta-warrior fame in China’s northwest, which has confirmed 1,758 total Covid-19 infections since Dec. 9, a high number for China. Most of the cases have been mild, officials said. No deaths related to Covid-19 have been reported anywhere in China in the past 11 months, including Xi’an.

Nonetheless, Covid-19-control seems to trump all other priorities in Xi’an, which is following a playbook similar to the one deployed two years ago in Wuhan, the first Covid-19 epicenter.

Like in Wuhan in early 2020, no one is allowed to enter or leave Xi’an. Most of the city’s 13 million residents can leave their homes only for Covid-19 testing. Few vehicles are allowed in the streets except for those transporting essential workers and supplies, and many supermarkets and hospitals are closed.

The online complaints of tens of thousands of stranded residents show how local officials must weigh the costs of extreme restrictions, such as rolling lockdowns and mandatory quarantines, against the benefit of keeping the case count low, in what Beijing calls a zero-tolerance Covid-19 strategy.

One month away from the 2022 Winter Olympics, the stakes are high for Beijing. The quick spread of the Omicron variant could severely complicate virus-control scenarios at the Games, which coincide with the Lunar New Year, when millions are expected to travel.

Omicron has yet to make significant inroads in China. When Xi’an first locked down, officials said the recent wave of infections had been caused by the Delta variant. That is still the case, a national health official told state media on Tuesday.

In recent days, local residents have circulated a document purporting to show that local officials are preparing to move anyone deemed to have been near an infected person—a vague definition that can mean someone in the same apartment complex—into quarantine centers outside the city. Xi’an officials said in a Monday briefing that the city was housing nearly 40,000 people in 387 quarantine centers.

Almost all the new cases have been detected among quarantined residents. The city can only ease restrictions once community spread, meaning infections detected outside quarantine centers, is down to zero, a Xi’an health official told the Xinhua News Agency on Tuesday.

China tallies both symptomatic and asymptomatic cases but includes only the former in its official count of confirmed cases.

“My biggest fear is not lack of food but being dragged to some unknown quarantine centers because one neighbor in the same building tested positive,” one resident posted on Weibo, a Twitter -like platform.

Discussions about the Xi’an lockdown had dominated among social-media topics in China in recent days with little sign of severe censorship, though some criticism appears to have been scrubbed.

The Xi’an municipal government couldn’t be reached for comment; city and provincial health authorities didn’t respond to requests for comment.

When Xi’an ordered the lockdown on Dec. 22, it said one family member would be allowed to do grocery runs every two days. It later tightened the rules as more cases were confirmed. Most grocery stores were closed and most online delivery services were suspended.

One of those who complained online, identifying himself as a migrant worker, said that in the first week of the lockdown, the only food he managed to buy before he received a government food package was one baby cabbage, 10 steamed buns and 5 kilograms of flour.

“To be honest, I don’t think Covid is scary. I think having no food to eat is my biggest threat,” he wrote on the WeChat social-media app.

Most local governments have managed to avoid wholesale lockdowns with tools such as “health codes” on mobile phones that track people’s movements in ways that facilitate contract-tracing and mass testing. In a lockdown early last year of Shijiazhuang, the capital of Hebei province with 11 million people, early last year, basic services including food delivery continued and most supermarkets stayed open. But in the Rust Belt city of Tonghua, an abrupt lockdown also left many searching for necessities such as food and medicine.

Glimpses of life during the lockdown almost exclusively come from locals’ social-media postings. Jiang Xue, an independent journalist based in Xi’an, wrote in an article published on WeChat that she had no doubt the city would defeat the virus, but questioned the cost. “If afterward, there are no reflections and no lessons learned…then all the hardship will be in vain.”

State-media coverage has mostly described a robust response by local authorities to the situation. One video showed police rushing an infant to a hospital after the mother sought help, saying her child hadn’t been getting needed leukemia treatment because of the lockdown and was having trouble breathing.

By contrast, a video that went viral over the weekend showed a man being beaten by guards, with comments alleging that he had gone out to buy steamed buns on New Year’s Eve. Following an online outcry at the video, which showed the buns scattered on the ground, police said two guards had been detained, and that they had apologized to the man.

Another video circulated online showed firefighters having to climb over the newly blocked gate of an apartment complex to put out a fire.

One woman wrote on the social-media platform Xiaohongshu about losing her father to a heart attack, saying her initial calls for an ambulance went unanswered and by the time he was seen, it was too late. Xiaohongshu has since removed her posts, citing “negative content and misguiding society.” The woman didn’t respond to requests for comment.

The city government has published a list of hospitals open to non-Covid-19 patients, though some residents said they couldn’t get through to phone numbers provided.

After Xi’an announced the lockdown, some tried to flee. One man hopped on a shared bicycle and pedaled for nearly 10 hours toward his hometown about 56 miles from Xi’an before he was caught, according to a police statement. He was placed under quarantine and fined 200 yuan, equivalent to around $31, for violating Covid-19-prevention rules.

Before the pandemic, Xi’an had been positioning itself as a modern innovation center with an open, welcoming and efficient city government. To attract talented workers, the city offered living allowances and rent subsidies and touted a fledgling high-tech zone.

The efforts seem to have paid off. Within just three years, between 2018 and 2020, the city gained nearly three million people, official data show. Its economy was one of the fastest-growing in western China.

Some commenters on social media warned against criticizing Xi’an’s lockdown, saying that could damage the image of both the city and China.

A college student from Xi’an said she couldn’t bear any criticism about the city on social media, either from strangers or friends. Then, after she failed to get any fresh vegetables or fruit for almost a week, her firm stance wavered. “I love my city but I’m so disappointed this time,” she said.

In Xi’an on New Year’s Day, Liu Guozhong, party chief of Shaanxi province, urged officials not to let down their guard. “Strict management of key venues mustn’t be relaxed,” he said, according to a statement on the provincial government website.

His remarks followed a visit by Vice Premier Sun Chunlan, who urged local officials to get the outbreak under control as soon as possible.