China’s ‘Zero Covid’ Pursuit Causes Mayhem Ahead of Party Conclave

In China’s far west region of Xinjiang, officials imposed a near-total lockdown and made a rare admission of failure in their handling of a Covid outbreak. In Inner Mongolia in the north, the authorities vowed “all-out” efforts to cut the spread of the virus. And in a popular travel destination in Yunnan, in China’s south, the government canceled flights, trapping crowds of angry tourists at an airport.

China is facing its largest flare-up of Covid cases in a month, complicating its preparations for an all-important Communist Party meeting where Xi Jinping is expected to expand his authority and claim another term in power. Provincial and local officials have vowed to stop the spread of the coronavirus from “spilling over” to Beijing, the capital, where the meeting will be held.

Daily Covid counts have more than doubled in the past week, to around 1,400 cases on Friday, in the country of 1.4 billion people — a tally that remains tiny by global standards. But Chinese authorities are under immense pressure to ensure that nothing disrupts the party congress, which starts Oct. 16. They have responded by ramping up restrictions that many already deem excessive. They are locking down regions and cities and mandating mass testing and quarantines, disrupting life for millions of people and drawing public complaints.

The authorities are sticking closely to their “zero Covid” policy of eliminating infections, despite the enormous economic and social cost of the strategy. Mr. Xi has made “zero Covid” a political imperative, linking support for the policy to support for the Communist Party, as he looks to hail China’s success in curbing infections as a sign of the superiority of Beijing’s authoritarian system.

China’s pandemic strategy is “almost a political campaign to show loyalty to Xi Jinping himself,” said Willy Lam, an adjunct professor of politics at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. “This makes the local officials even more anxious because they all want to stay in the good graces of Xi Jinping.”

Covid infections have surged in part because of the country’s weeklong National Day holiday, which started on Oct. 1. Despite the appeals of health officials for people to limit travel, many flocked to tourist hot spots. Now, they are stranded after flights and trains were canceled.

Lockdowns have been punishing for the residents of less-developed regions. Shortages of food and medicine have been common in those areas, prompting residents to take to social media with complaints and pleas for help.

The fast-spreading Omicron variant has constantly slipped through China’s tight restrictions. Officials in Xinjiang were forced to admit that lapses in their approach led to cases spilling over from the region to other provinces and major cities, including Beijing.

Liu Sushe, the vice chairman of the Xinjiang region, conceded this week that the area of 22 million people was facing its most difficult public health emergency ever. He said some officials had been lax in their work, failing to properly impose measures to quash infections. Mr. Liu said measures, such as compulsory mass testing, may have even contributed to spreading the virus, as some health workers who were not wearing proper protection became infected themselves.

On Tuesday, Xinjiang effectively banned residents and visitors from leaving, stopping all trains and buses from departing the region and stopping most flights. But such lockdowns could lead to more problems. Last month, residents in Yining, a city in Xinjiang, flooded social media platforms to plead for food and other provisions, including sanitary pads and medicine, during a long lockdown. Shortage of daily necessities, as well as the chaotic enforcement of attempts to curb the outbreak, had already forced local officials to admit failings.

Similar problems in other areas, most notably in Shanghai earlier this year and in Tibet a few weeks ago, have led to anger about the human and economic toll of the harsh measures.

In the southwest province of Yunnan, angry travelers took to the Chinese social media site Weibo to vent their anger over being stranded at the Xishuangbanna airport after flights were canceled on short notice. On Tuesday, the Xishuangbanna prefecture’s health authorities tightened restrictions, effectively preventing most people from leaving.

Some videos shared online showed what appeared to be guards or police officers clad in white hazmat suits carrying guns and riot shields at the airport. The weapons set off confrontations, leading to exasperated tourists shouting: “Who are you pointing the guns at?” The New York Times has not been able to independently verify the videos, which have mostly been censored on Chinese social media but continued to circulate widely on Twitter. Multiple calls to the airport rang unanswered on Friday.

On Weibo, commenters who said they were in areas under lockdown in Yunnan complained about not knowing when they could leave. Many wrote that they were worried about getting basic necessities, with most supermarkets closed. Some stranded travelers formed self-help groups to exchange information.

In Inner Mongolia, Covid cases surged to nearly 700 on Friday — the highest number among Chinese provinces — from just a handful a week ago.

At a meeting chaired by Sun Shaocheng, the top party official of Inner Mongolia, officials were instructed to stop infections by “killing chickens with a knife for slaughtering cows,” a play on a Chinese idiom, to indicate that overkill was desired. “Act faster, prevent spread and spillover, especially to Beijing,” an official readout said. Since then, several cities and counties in the region have been placed under lockdown.

Overkill is increasingly the norm. In the tropical island province of Hainan, often dubbed the Hawaii of China, the authorities ordered mass testing after just two cases were detected on Monday. The province has only recently emerged from a lockdown in August of the popular tourist city of Sanya, which trapped tens of thousands of travelers.

Public anger over the lockdowns has at times soared to unusual levels, including last month after a bus transferring people to quarantine crashed, killing 27 people in the southern city of Guiyang. On social media, debates raged over whether the Covid measures have caused more damage and disruption than the virus itself.

Officials have struggled to fund and staff the efforts to stop the virus. In many poorer areas, local government finances have become strained, particularly as they have sought to enforce mass testing, often on millions of people every few days.

“It’s simply that quite a few localities have been so exhausted,” said Dali Yang, a professor of political science at the University of Chicago. “One of the big challenges is that all those people have been on the front line for such a long time, the incentives are beginning to diminish in certain localities, some of the local authorities are running out of money.”