Shanghai Lockdown 2022. An Analysis of the Consequences of the Chinese Zero-Covid Policy on Human Rights and People’s Welfare
Focus - Allegati
01 giugno 2022
21 minuti, 45 secondi
By the end of March 2022, the strict application of the 'zero Covid policy' in the city of Shanghai had raised international concern, given its effects on individual human rights as well as on the economy, the environment and on the wider society. This paper analyses these effects to predict the possible developments, and underlines the delicate but necessary task of striking a balance between the protection and respect of both individual rights and collective interests, such as public health, which has been one of the most controversial issues since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic worldwide.
Sara Squadrani - Head Researcher Mondo Internazionale G.E.O. Culture & Society
Erica Trotta - Junior Researcher Mondo Internazionale G.E.O. Environment
Two years after the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, at the end of March 2022 the Chinese government announced a full lockdown in the city of Shanghai. Following a new outbreak of cases, the government adopted a ‘zero Covid policy’, which did not admit any tolerance for rule-breakers. After the initial shock, the strict application of this policy showed the dark side of the lockdown, as Chinese and foreign residents underwent mass testing and lost all freedoms. Eventually, on the 16th of May the Chinese authorities announced the progressive easing of anti-Covid measures starting from the 1st of June.
After two months of strict control and uncompromising application of governmental measures, we can now put things into perspective and make an analysis of their impact. In particular, we will first examine them under the perspective of international human rights law (1), considering the particular Chinese standpoint on fundamental rights, and we will then proceed to assess the serious economic, political, and environmental implications of the measures from a global perspective (2).
1. Fundamental Rights Violations
Since the start of the pandemic, a crucial debate has been going on about how to protect the right to health while implementing anti-pandemic rules, which have consequences on the enjoyment of other fundamental rights. This debate is grounded in the question of balancing human rights, “as a method for interpreting and implementing human rights provisions” (Çalı, 2007:253), with other rights and societal interests such as public health, which has become the central concern since the Covid-19 pandemic outbreak.
1.1 Which are the rights involved?
It is pos sible to acknowledge that the measures the Chinese government is implementing to stop the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic are causing violations of rights listed in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), in the 1966 Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and in other relevant international human rights legal instruments.
The 1966 Covenant provides that limitations or restrictions to fundamental rights are accepted only if they are “prescribed by law and are necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others”. In particular, this provision applies to the right to liberty of movement and freedom to choose his residence (art. 12 of the Covenant), right to freedom to manifest one's religion or beliefs (art. 19), right of peaceful assembly (art. 21), and right to freedom of association (art. 22).
The recent measures adopted by the Chinese government in response to a new momentum of the pandemic are clearly set to protect public safety and health, but it can be argued whether they are efficient to protect the fundamental rights and freedoms of the community. The first concern regards the right to health, which is the right the anti-Covid measures seek to protect but which is, at the same time, endangered by the exact same measures. This occurs as the access to hospitals has become difficult, given that public mobility and private traffic have been reduced; as people are forced to go to quarantine centers as soon as they test positive to Covid-19 and they are subject to violence if they refuse to; as the mental health of people forced to be in quarantine for long periods is threatened. These situations create a paradox around the objective of protecting public health, which is being attained through violations of the right to health of the individual (art. 25, UDHR).
As a consequence, also the right to life, liberty and security of person (art. 3, UDHR) is at stake since whoever is forced to remain in her/his house or in quarantine centers is not free to go out and carry out her/his life, even if she/he is not affected by the virus. This condition does not allow people to properly assist older and fragile people and, in some cases, to access food and other basic commodities, also due to the fact that delivery services cannot afford the amount of requests and compensate for the restrictions. Moreover, reported mass testing blitzes for Covid-19 and the constant control of personal sanitary information and location represent an interference in private life (Bloomberg, 2022).
There have been cases of separation between children and their parents, transferred to different quarantine facilities and hospitals “with no family contact allowed” (Kanthor, 2022). This constitutes a violation of the right to family life and of the rights of child, protected by the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), a legally binding instrument adopted in 1989, whose article 9 states that “No child should be separated from his or her parents against their will unless it is in the child’s best interests”.
People in Shanghai are protesting and sharing their experiences, which have become available outside China: foreign journalists have reported their own experiences in Shanghai through articles and videos, as well as Chinese citizens have spread photos and posters via social media to protest against the restrictive measures. However, the right to freedom of expression and the right to information (art. 19, UDHR) are endangered by the imposition of censorship on bloggers and people on the streets documenting the situation (including just filming desert areas of the city), and by the restrictions imposed on the use of the Internet. For example, in April, an online petition against the separation of children and their parents circulated for a couple of hours but it was censored (Kanthor, 2022).
1.2 How does China approach International Human Rights Law?
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in Paris on 10 December 1948 as a common international standard for the recognition and protection of human rights, and “as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations”, as stated in its Preamble. It has inspired the adoption of treaties and conventions dedicated to the protection of specific rights, and the only mechanism for its implementation remains States’ commitment to respect and implement those international legal instruments. For this reason, in the case of the Shanghai lockdown, acknowledging the alleged violations of human rights does not imply an international reaction against Chinese actions.
The Chinese government’s attitude towards international human rights law and human rights in general was historically ideological and linked to political interests. Until the 1980s, China considered human rights as the product of the Western capitalistic society and as something legitimating the power of the bourgeoisie over the others. From the end of the 1980s, China started to include the issue of human rights in its legal and political structures as it became a matter of concern and a debated topic for Chinese and international societies. Indeed, in the 1990s China complied with the international human rights regime and the 2004 Constitutional reform added the following comma to article 33: “The State respects and protects human rights”.
However, art. 51 of the Chinese Constitution introduces the boundaries of citizens' rights and freedoms, as their exercise “must not harm state, social and collective interests, nor the legitimate interests or freedom of other citizens” (Cavalieri). This means that the collective dimension prevails over the individual one, as far as human rights protection is concerned, while the latter is highlighted in the Western perspective. Confucianism inspired the attention to societal interest, which is embedded in the Chinese legal and political framework. According to Confucian philosophy, the State is representative of the family, where each individual plays a role in pursuing the good functioning of the system, with its social and economic components, whereas people acting individually only generate chaos (Scaldaferri, 2021).
In light of the above, the focus on general interests allows us to understand both China’s internal and external attitudes towards human rights. Internally, China believes in the “paramount responsibility of the state to secure public order and [in] the permissibility of restricting individual liberties towards this end” (Sceats S. et al., 2012: 55), which explains why the Chinese government is implementing very strict measures to stop the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. Externally, China shows its participation in the international human right regime because “it wishes to be perceived as accepting [its] legitimacy” (Sceats S. et al., 2012: 55); however, when domestic political and social issues are at stake, China does not hesitate to restrict rights and liberties in order to maintain control, consequently weakening its accountability towards the international human rights regime.
In the end, the violations of fundamental rights are a consequence of specific anti-pandemic actions, which are put in place to protect the general interest, while producing negative external costs on the rights and interests of individuals and non-negligible social, economic, political, and environmental consequences.
2. Other possible impacts of such strict measures
Other than from a human rights perspective, the ongoing lockdown in Shanghai is problematic in several ways. This section will analyze the economic, environmental, political implications of such a prolonged and strict confinement.
2.1 Economic and political issues
From an economic perspective, Shanghai is the beating heart of China. According to CNN Business, not only does it have the largest GDP of all Chinese cities (4.32 trillion yuan, that is around 679 billion American dollars), but it also accounts for about 3.8% of China's whole GDP and 800 multinational corporations have established regional or country headquarters there (2021 data). As a matter of fact, it is first of all a crucial industrial hub, with manufacturing and assembling centers that turn high-tech components into finished products, ready to be shipped all over the world. The automotive sector, led by companies like Volkswagen, General Motors and Tesla, is particularly rooted in the city.
Finished goods are then either exchanged in the domestic market, reaching around 28,5 million people or shipped abroad (worldpopulationreview.com, 2022). We must bear in mind that the Port of Shanghai is the world's busiest for container traffic, and that the halt of international exchanges and economic activities is causing huge losses to the import-export sector, since cargo ships are stuck in the port, unable to either enter or exit it, and are having difficulties loading and unloading containers. Indeed, Shanghai’s port alone accounts for 10.4% of China's trade with the rest of the world and for 16.7% of China's total container shipments in 2021 (CNN Business, 2021).
Moreover, due to travel restrictions within Chinese territory, land transport has also extremely reduced. This situation has repercussions on the whole supply chain, down to the individual consumer, and is likely to generate a negative loop. The combination of logistic problems and the restrictions imposed on consumers and retailers cause significant shortages for firms and factories, which are thus forced to reduce production or even to shut down completely. The lack of production increases the shortages and further disrupts the global supply chain, also causing prices to rise.
Other than for maritime transport, Shanghai has a huge importance in terms of aviation, thanks to Pudong International Airport and Hongqiao Airport, which make it the fourth busiest hub in the world after London, New York, and Tokyo. Due to the current lockdown, plane traffic (both for tourists and goods) has diminished significantly, while prices for air freight have increased noticeably, thus reducing the amount of goods exchanged by plane. Also, tourism was one of the greatest victims of the lockdown. As passenger flights are being canceled, tourism is undergoing a huge contraction.
However, Shanghai is not only relevant for commodities exchange, but the current restrictions are also affecting services, above all financial transactions. The Shanghai Stock Exchange is indeed the third stock market by value (approximately 7.3 trillion $), after those of New York and London (CNN Business). While it is true that some traders are working from home, stock value has decreased considerably, and every day the lockdown continues, investors’ trust diminishes. What is more, IPOs (Initial Public Offers, the operation that allows a company to be listed on a public market) were blocked because administrative centers were closed.
Needless to say, all these elements are closely connected, and their consequences are already expanding globally; at the moment when the economic outlook seemed optimistic, the growth rate returned to negative values. The risk of spillover effects is extremely high, and the only certainty is that the longer the lockdown will last, the greater the economic impact will be.
The economic welfare of China is also essential to keep domestic consensus and avoid social tensions. In the current crisis, where people are having a hard time buying food and other essential items, some are starting to protest against the regime. Of course, since videos are censored and testimonials are scarce it is hard to assess the degree of such discontent. However, we may wonder if and to what extent Xi’s regime could be weakened by this situation.
2.2 Violation of animal rights
There is also the discussion of whether animal rights can be compared to fundamental human rights and what place they have among the legal branches. China is no exception to this discussion, but anti-Covid measures seem to bypass animal basic rights.
The few videos that managed to leave China are confirmed by several witnesses: if pet-owners test positive to Covid-19, their animals are either captured and taken to euthanizing centers or left abandoned. This approach is based on the false argument – rebutted by the WHO - that pets such as dogs and cats can spread the virus (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2022).
Despite their innocuousness, animals are treated and systematically ‘eliminated’ as vectors of the virus. It is likely that such extreme measures aim at showing the power of the Chinese government, set to defeat the virus once and for all by all means. This approach, however, contradicts WHO findings and is spreading great panic in the population. Some videos and pictures show dogs being beaten to death, left to starve in their owners’ flats (neighbors are often too scared to take them in, and people do not always have the time to fill their bowls). The methods used to gather animals are not more humane: cats, for instance, are piled up in bags before being loaded on trucks (Skynews.com, 2022).
What is more, there is the question of how the authorities intend to dispose of all the piling corpses of dead pets and what the environmental and health consequences will be. As a matter of fact, animal corpses, as well as human ones, are a major vector of several diseases. Regardless of the method used, the quantity of pets in a city like Shanghai is considerable, and euthanized animals will inevitably be ‘stocked’ together for some time before being disposed of. In addition, in some communities people are prohibited from walking their dogs: having to stay inside for long periods of time affects the physical and mental health of both pets and owners.
From a cultural standpoint, after the revolution, Mao’s campaigns aimed at eliminating bourgeois sentiments such as "sympathy for the downtrodden", and therefore discouraged the habit of having pets. This perception did not foster the development of animal law. At the international level, despite several projects, such as the International Convention on Animal Protection and the Universal Declaration of Animal Welfare, no instrument was actually adopted. In domestic law, national traditions differ greatly: in China some protection is provided by the Law of the People's Republic of China on the Protection of Wildlife of 1988, according to which animals are considered property of the state (art. 3). However, cruel practices remain, and no general legislation on animal rights exists (GAL, Global Animal Law).
Paradoxically enough, it was just with the Covid-19 pandemic that the necessity to improve animal legislation became clear. The decision to prohibit the trade of wild animals in Chinese markets is a perfect example of the consequences of Covid in this matter. However, its implications remain uncertain: whether it was conceived as a temporary and isolated measure or as the beginning of a structural revision of animal law in China is hard to say.
2.3 Environment and health damages
The measures that are being implemented in Shanghai could also have some negative effects on the environment and human health. The most alarming and evident measure is the massive disinfection that is carried out every day in the city’s empty streets, where firemen trucks use their hoses to spray disinfectant in massive quantities.
However, whether such measure is necessary and/or proportionate is debatable. Once again, scientific evidence may be tainted by political implications. As a matter of fact, mass disinfection may be a theatrical measure used, on one side, to show the strictness of the ‘zero Covid’ policy, and on the other a way to avoid contradiction with the previous strategy of the government. Continuity is the sign of success, and mass-scale actions have a strong emotional impact. That is arguably the main reason why the Chinese government insists on mass disinfection campaigns, despite the evidence that it could be harmful to human health and the environment. According to CNN, reporting D. Fisher’s words, “there really is no role for mass disinfection of outdoor areas, sidewalks and walls. They are unlikely to be contaminated or cause transmission through a mucosal surface (such as the eyes, nose or mouth)”.
The WHO itself affirms in its guidelines that “spraying disinfectants, even outdoors, can be harmful to human health and cause irritation or damage to the eyes, respiratory tract or skin”. As for chlorine disinfectants in particular, their excessive use may “contaminate water and endanger the ecosystems of nearby lakes and rivers” (CNN, 2022). More directly, such chemical disinfectants could harm workers, if they are unsafely handled and/or improperly used (Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 2022 and NIOSH, 2020). This was already known at the beginning of the pandemic.
All things considered, the Chinese government does not seem to intend to change its strategy. The air, water and land contamination due to disinfectants will inevitably add up to other pollution issues that China was already affected by, but a satisfactory assessment of their impact will only be possible at the end of the pandemic.
By way of conclusion, it is necessary to consider a last dimension in the analysis of the Chinese anti-Covid measures’ impact on society, which is the ethical one. Although it may seem out of context or even irrelevant, the ethical dimension is in fact crucial: it is the element that keeps together political, economic and health considerations and that, above all, marks the borderline between what is acceptable in such an emergency situation and what is not, especially in a context where neologisms such as ‘sanitary dictatorship’ are appearing. This borderline is what inspires the legal reasoning about the balancing of human rights with other rights and societal interests such as public health.
While in Western countries one of the greatest points of debate has been whether imposing a vaccine is acceptable or not, in Shanghai the government lockdown measures, which originally intended to protect the population, present violations of the rights to life, liberty and security of person, to family life, to freedom of expression and information, which eventually lead to economic, environmental, and health damages. This shows how different discourses and sensitivities on ethics lead to different policies.
To conclude, the analysis of the Shanghai lockdown case demonstrates that:
- it is most likely that the Chinese government’s attitude towards international human rights law and human rights in general will continue to be ideologically oriented towards the achievement of internal political interests, and that an international reaction against human rights’ violations won’t occur, despite the anti-Covid measures have received attention worldwide;
- economically, Shanghai’s restart will probably not be easy and it will depend on goods availability, government policies and macroeconomic factors;
- previous governmental provisions banning animal activities do not represent the beginning of a structural revision of animal law in China;
- and a satisfactory assessment of the impact the anti-Covid measures and products used are having on the environment and on people’s health will only be possible at the end of the pandemic, if the available data will qualify as reliable.
Confirmed by other independent sources; logical in itself; coherent with other information on the topic
Not confirmed; logical in itself; coherent with other information on the topic
Not confirmed; reasonably logical in itself; coherent with some other information on the topic
Not confirmed; possible but not logical in itself; no other information on the topic
Not confirmed; not logical in itself; contradicts with other information on the topic
Not able to be evaluated
No basis to evaluate the validity of the information
Trustworthiness of the source
No doubt about authenticity, reliability or competence; has a history of total trustworthiness
Small doubts about authenticity, reliability or competence, nevertheless has a history of valid information in a majority of cases
Doubts about authenticity, reliability or competence; however, has supplied valid information in the past
Normally not trustworthy
Significant doubt about authenticity, reliability or competence, however has supplied valid information in the past
Lack of authenticity, reliability or competence; history of invalid information
Not able to be evaluated
No basis to evaluate the validity of the information
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