It began with the Beijing-based financial magazine Caixin reporting that by Sunday, the Chinese authorities had some 33 cities and an estimated 65 million people under full or partial lockdown, with the world’s second largest economy in a quiet, desperate battle to control its broadest outbreak sof COVID-19 since the virus first emerged as a global threat in early 2020.

According to state-sanctioned data gathered by the excellent, (and now state-run) Caixin, more than 100 cities across 26 provincial regions officially reported outbreaks of the virus by Thursday last week – which is by far the worst officially conceded shape and spread of cases as far back as when COVID-19 first took hold of China, as 2019 became 2020 and before the rest of the world had any idea what was happening.

Now, in the States overnight, an almost breathless CNN is suggesting it’s likely more than 70 Chinese cities are already under “full or partial Covid-lockdowns”.

Light on detail, heavy on disaster CNN might not be wrong in saying the number of impacted citizens could already be way, way more than 300 million.

To complicate matters, overnight Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province, the centre of a new outbreak and in full lockdown,  was awoken by a 6.8-magnitude earthquake  which shook Luding county, 220km from  Chengdu.

According to the Global Times, there’s at least 46 people dead and 50 injured.


Lighter on detail, still…

Perhaps most worryingly, the outward facing news sites still masquerading as media – like the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post – have little-to-no COVID-reporting. And nothing at all on its lead pages about mainland lockdowns.

That kind of silence screams trouble.

China is now gripped between a cascading Omicron and the final countdown to President Xi Jinping’s expected grasp of an unprecedented third term.

Biting the bullet because there is simply no other option, China’s ruling Communist Party last week publicly set the date for its gala political event from October 16 – the five-year party congress – with the timing and shape of the official announcement so obviously laying the groundwork for Xi’s ascent into an open-tenure extension on power.


A race to power

The world’s now had enough experience of the way COVID-19 spreads to know mid-October is a time which could coincide with the broad peak of what is starting to look like a nationwide crisis.

Since August 20, at least 74 cities with a combined population of 313 million have imposed lockdowns that cover entire cities, districts or multiple neighborhoods, according to CNN’s calculations. That offers a lot of time for the Omicron-variant to do its thing.

They include 15 provincial capitals and the key port city of Tianjin, a provincial-level municipality.

Nationwide, the country has reported at least 1,000 new cases for almost 30 consecutive days, with more than 1,500 local infections detected Sunday, according to the National Health Commission (NHC).


Same bucket, but so much bigger…

Locked in Chengdu-style. Via Getty

All levels of Government around China have opened up the same old toolkit – mass testing and citywide lockdowns — as per the country’s “zero-COVID policy”, best described as a moonshot on acid attempt to smother outbreaks at the source, regardless the rising human and economic price and regardless the disruption to millions of lives and businesses.

Caixin has done the math and says that as of the weekend, seven of the cities in lockdown were the capitals of provinces or autonomous regions — Chengdu, Lhasa, Xining, Urumqi, Shijiazhuang, Guiyang and Harbin.

The key port of Tianjin, Beijing’s supply port and sister city, has already shuttered some 16 districts under hard lockdown. All these cities have populations above and beyond Australia’s largest urban centres.

The seemingly irrepressible Omicron variant and its cabal of sub-variants began to remerge in late July leading to headlines when the holiday island of Sanya rang alarm bells as infections materialised during the peak summer season. Like Amity Island, in the end all local officials could do was grin and bear it, call in the shark experts and initiate a citywide lockdown.

Sanya, the capital city of the island province of Hainan, is still in lockdown months later.

Unsurprisingly, the dissident-hotspots-cum-holiday-havens of Tibet and Xinjiang Uyghur autonomous regions are both under various stages of lockdown after local infections were reported by media. Effectively the test-study for a technology-driven police state, I’d say Xinjiang might just be seeing cases pop-up pretty regularly for many, many years to come.

But perhaps most concerningly, last Thursday, the central western provincial capital of Sichuan Province, Chengdu ordered all 21 million of the city’s residents to stay at homes unless “necessary”.

That makes Chengdu – another critical transport hub linking east and west, north and south – the second Chinese city after Shanghai to impose such a madcap lockdown.

On Sunday, local authorities decided to extend the lockdown for almost all of the city, without saying when it would end.

Finally, Shenzhen in the very south tightened restrictions and swept up at least six out of its 10 districts into lockdown. Shenzhen has reported nearly 500 local cases since in just seven days.

“Currently, the city’s COVID situation is severe and complex. The number of new infections remains relatively high and community transmission risk still exists,” Lin Hancheng, a straight-shooting city health official, told a domestic news conference late on Sunday.