EVEN THOUGH NEW Covid-19 infections have peaked, Shanghai city authorities are imposing stricter control measures, an indication of the intensifying political dimension to the zero-Covid policy on which President Xi Jinping yet again pinned his personal colours at the Politburo Standing Committee on May 6.
Shanghai is already under what is now more than a month’s-long lockdown that has seen deaths, caused economic disruption and kindled social unrest amid localised food shortages and disgruntlement about city authorities’ management of the situation.
More mass testing and stricter enforcement of mandatory quarantine for those testing positive or who have co-residents, not just family or close neighbours who test positive are on the way. Residents have reportedly received notices of the imposition of ‘quiet periods’ of three to seven days in which they will not be allowed outside and non-essential deliveries will be halted.
Beijing, too, is extending quarantine measures and making its lockdowns less ‘lite’ in a bid to avoid the capital becoming a second front in ‘the battle for Shanghai’.
As this Bystander has noted before, the top leadership is in a bind. Under- and ineffective vaccination has left it with little option but to persist with trying to achieve zero-Covid. Treating the pandemic as endemic now would likely trigger a wave of deaths that would undermine the narrative of China, unlike the heartless West, putting the lives of its citizens above economic considerations.
Yet the longer it persists with zero-Covid, the less choice it has but to continue it. Politically, Xi cannot make a U-turn, especially with a critical Party Congress coming up in the autumn. The messaging by state media and censorship of social media will negate public criticism of Xi, while local officials will be under pressure to fall into line.
The same may hold less true in elite circles, even if criticism remains muted. Few if any will take the gamble of speaking out loudly against Xi now, cognizant that his power may be far greater after the Party Congress.
CHINA HAS TRADED economic growth for saving lives in the pandemic — the quid pro quo of its zero-Covid policy — and criticised Western nations for doing the opposite.
A new paper by five economists from Chinese and US universities, led by Jingjing Chen of Tsinghua University, seeks to put a hard number on that hit to the economy.
It is a large one.
The quintet estimates that if the four big cities of Beijing, Shanghai, Guangdong and Shenzhen underwent a one-month full-scale lockdown, China’s real GDP would fall by up to 8.6% during the period.
They reached their estimate by analysing real-time data of inter-city road haulage rather than the more commonly used measure of consumption declines.
Applying their model to the most extreme case scenario — all Chinese cities put into full-scale lockdown for one month — GDP would decline by 53% in the month.
It is unlikely, but not impossible given the Omicron breakthrough, that Beijing, Shanghai, Guangdong and Shenzhen would be put into lockdown simultaneously for that long. Nonetheless, the authors point out that a full-scale lockdown of a single big city would be sufficient to impact national GDP:
The largest three effects come from Shanghai, Beijing and Shenzhen, where full-scale lockdown will knock 2.7%, 2.5% and 1.8% off the aggregate real income, respectively.
The paper gives academic backing to Shanghai authorities’ efforts to avoid a full-scale lockdown of the country’s financial and commercial hub for as long as possible.
The authors note that their research looks at only the short-term impacts of citywide lockdowns and does not consider the effects on expectations and saving and investment decisions in the longer term.
The authors also conclude that a city’s economic size is the primary determinant of the aggregate effect of locking it down. Yet, a city’s position in the country’s trade network plays a more significant role in the spillover effects. These can account for about 10% of the aggregate impact.
The strictness, severity and persistence of China’s lockdowns make international comparisons difficult. However, the authors say that the economic losses caused by Chinese lockdowns are four times as large as those caused by the Italian and Canadian lockdowns in the second quarter of last year.
THE WINTER OLYMPICS in Beijing, which formally open on February 4, may turn out well for China, but less so for the city itself, at least in the short term.
Covid-19 precautions have prevented the influx of spectators that usually provide host cities with a tourism and spending boost and some burnishing of their reputation as a destination city.
The customary shutting down of nearby industrial plants such as steel mills to ensure blue skies for the duration of the games will reduce output and construction. The closures for these Games have been more widespread than for the 2008 Summer Olympics because the two satellite venues, Yanqing and Zhangjiakou, which is over the border in neighbouring Hebei, are so far from the city centre.
Beijing is dealing with outbreaks of the Delta and Omicron variants of Covid-19. The 96 cases recorded since mid-January are a trifling number by international standards but not by China’s. It is the city’s highest number of cases since June and July 2020.
Additional control measures introduced in recent days will further dampen activity in the city. With the Games running to February 20, followed by the Winter Paralympics and the annual national legislative sessions in March, the restrictions are likely to remain in place for some time.
Authorities would not want an embarrassing failure of their ‘zero-tolerance’ policy towards the virus during the games.
This has already forced the participating athletes to be contained within a tightly sealed Games’ bubble, and the ban on spectators save for a small, hand-selected few, including fewer world leaders than Beijing would have liked given the US-led diplomatic boycott over Xinjiang.
In the long-term, the city will benefit from the construction and transport links already completed for the games, especially if it enables Beijing to develop a winter sports industry in Yanqing and Zhangjiakou once the pandemic has passed.
Creating a national winter sports industry is an official goal despite a lack of tradition in snow sports, but one in which the milestones are being dutifully hit ahead of the showpiece Games.
The officially reported total costs for the Games are $3.9 billion, well above the $1.6 billion estimated for operational costs when awarded in 2014. However, that is par for the course for any Olympics.
However, it is unlikely the Games will be as financially austere as portrayed. Some estimates have put the cost at ten times the official number once all the transport and infrastructure costs are added, including capital improvements to some of the venues used for the 2008 Beijing Summer Games. For comparison, the actual cost of the Sochi Winter Olympics is estimated at $60 billion in 2022 dollars.
There is nothing unique about an Olympics being portrayed as cheaper to stage than they genuinely cost. However, putting on this edition of the Games successfully and cheaply in the middle of a global pandemic is intended as both a vindication of the zero-tolerance policy and a projection of global power.
Also likely to be quietly ignored in the razzmatazz is the production of artificial snow. The Beijing Winter Olympics will be the first to rely almost entirely on fake snow in the absence of the real thing.
This has also raised environmental questions as the Games will need to draw more than 220 million litres of water to generate it from a region that is already suffering from increasing aridity.
How much of the final bill will be picked up centrally, and how much by the city is not publically known.
Significant contributions by private companies will offset part of the costs. There are 45 local sponsors of the Games, in addition to the International Olympic Committee (IOC)’s 14 international sponsors, all hoping to dodge reputational risks from human rights issues. Many have been untypically quiet promotionally ahead of the games, at least internationally; their Olympic-themed advertising campaigns have been in full swing in China.
The IOC itself will make its customary contribution to the Games’ operating budget, in this case, $880 million. Like its international sponsors, it is distancing itself from human rights issues, although it may virtue signal via a public if controlled meeting with the unaccountably low-profile tennis star Peng Shuai. Unlike the following two sets of Games in Paris and Milan, the IOC did not require the host city for the Beijing Olympics to sign a human rights agreement.
Beijing is a $630 trillion economy. Visiting Russian President Vladimir Putin might like to reflect on the fact that three Beijing’s would be a more significant economic entity than the entire Russian economy.
A few billion dollars here or there to support the Games will not break Beijing economically, even if there is an opportunity cost to losing any stimulus effect from the Games, and, as with all Olympics, the legacy value of the construction undertaken will be fuzzy. Further, the city would probably have had to foot much of the additional costs of containing the latest Covid surges.
SYMBOLICALLY, BEIJING IS the worst of places for a potential second-wave outbreak of Covid-19 to occur. Authorities have been forced to quarantine a large area in the west of the capital around the city’s main fresh-food market, Xinfadi, with 137 new cases reported there in the past six days.
Residents are being tightly monitored and travel restricted. Schools are closed. Taxis cannot leave the city and flights out of Beijing were cancelled on Wednesday. Destinations such as Macau are enforcing mandatory 14-day isolation on travellers arriving from the capital. Mask wearing in public in the capital is again becoming required, having been laxly practised of late as the first wave of the outbreak appeared to recede across most of the country.
Low though the numbers are by international standards, since Covid-19 was first reported in Wuhan, authorities have been particularly concerned about an outbreak of the infection in Beijing. This is both because it is the capital and political centre of the country and because it would undermine the official narrative of the Party’s success in managing the pandemic. Having to seal off the city, in the way the outbreak in the northeast near the Russian border was handled, would be embarrassing, but still cannot be ruled out at this point.
THE CELEBRATION IN in Beijing on September 3rd to mark the 70th anniversary of the ending of World War Two in Asia will be a breath of fresh air.
Heavy industry, power plants and construction sites in the capital, along with more in Hebei, Tianjin, Shanxi, Inner Mongolia, Shandong and Henan, are being shut down or curtailed between August 28th and September 4th to make the air less polluted. Some 10,000 factories and 9,000 construction sites will be affected, state media say. The goal is to cut pollution on the day by 40% in the capital and 30% in the surrounding region.
The measures are similar to those taken during the 2008 Olympic Games and last year’s the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meetings so that visitors wouldn’t have to breathe in the filthy atmosphere residents have to suffer the rest of the year. The tail end of the Athletics World Championships due to start in Beijing on August 22nd and run until September 6th will also get some benefit from this year’s effort.
One difference this time is that Beijing authorities have also ordered a complete halt to production at explosives plants and the sealing under guard of all toxic chemicals in the city. In the wake of the Tianjin disaster, Beijing wouldn’t want the 70th-anniversary parade going off with the wrong sort of bang.
THIS BYSTANDER HAS only recently come across the photographs that U.S. astronaut Reid Wiseman has been tweeting from the International Space Station. This one of Beijing taken earlier this month is almost a work of art.
Train G502 on the inaugural run of the Beijing-Guangzhou line, the world’s longest high-speed rail line.
Passenger service has started on the world’s longest high-speed rail line, connecting Beijing and Guangzhou, a journey of 2,298 kilometers. The link cuts the travel time to eight hours from 21. It is a centerpiece in the build-out of the country’s at times scandal and safety-plagued high-speed rail network which is due to cover 16,000 kilometers by 2015. By then, the Beijing-Guangzhou line is due to be extended to Hong Kong.
Following the heavy rains that recently inundated Beijing with such loss of life, the capital is to build 20 underground flood pools to relieve future storm flooding. They will be put under places known to susceptible to flash floods, low-lying roadways in particular.
A conventional surface flood pool is the land around a reservoir that is intended to be flooded in the event of extreme rains as the reservoir rises and backs up. The excess water is then run off by being released through the reservoir’s dam in subsequent days. Underground storm water storage works in much the same way, temporarily holding storm water until a city’s drainage system can handle it.
Flood pools are not only a common form of flood management, but, smartly managed, are also a potentially profitable source of municipal water supplies, irrigation, recreation facilities and fish or wildlife habitats, Beijing’s flood pools won’t bring such broad public goods as far as we can tell. They will have to be fitted in between all the other subterranean construction beneath a long-established city: sewer and water pipes, subway lines, building foundations and the like.
Modern underground storm water storage systems are often modular, so can be constructed as shape and space allows. Alternatively they can be built from large diameter pipes and threaded around obstructions. Their capacity is typically equivalent to a swimming pool and are easiest to retrofit to places like roads and parking lots that can be dug up and the systems installed under them.
Urban flooding is a worsening problem in China (and elsewhere) as global warming, urbanization and industrialization pose a growing triple threat to cities’ natural defences, defenses urban planners have anyway been concreting over with reckless abandon. It is, though, reasonable to ask why there hasn’t previously been more provision to deal with flash floods in the capital.
Hong Kong, for one, has underground storm water storage in several of its towns already and is planning to build more, notably in Happy Valley on Hong Kong Island which is to get an award winning, state of the art flood pool at a cost of HK$1 billion ($130 million). Hong Kong had the advantage of being able to build the lower -tech tanks it already has into its new towns from the outset, a luxury that Beijing doesn’t enjoy.
Urban planners are only now realizing that they have to make cities greener so they are less encouraging to extreme weather. All the newly constructed impervious surfaces such as roads, parking lots and rooftops, create run-offs that existing urban drainage, often old and inadequate, can’t handle. can’t handle. Not only is ground storage for rainwater scarce and run-offs from hard surfaces absent, ancient streams that could carry rainwater to rivers and ponds that could help it find its way to acquirers below have been filled in. As Beijing’s are expensively learning– the economic cost of the recent floods is estimated to be at least 2.3 billion yuan ($360 million), before the cost of installing the new storage tanks–they need to create the modern urban equivalent of something nature has provided naturally.
The flooding that hit Beijing a week ago (above) was a freak. The rains that caused it were the heaviest in 60 years. Severe weather, certainly, but not beyond the bounds of what a national capital should be prepared to deal with. And certainly not with as heavy a loss of life, 77 dead. It has revealed weaknesses in urban planning, construction, infrastructure and emergency management. “We must seriously reflect on these lessons and always bear them in mind,” Guo Jinlong, Party boss in the city, says. Quite.
Urban flooding is a worsening problem in China (and elsewhere) as global warming, urbanization and industrialization pose a growing triple threat to cities’ natural defences, especially those of cities in developing economies. But beyond the human costs are the economic disruption as transportation, communications networks and electricity supplies, the arteries of modern cities, are put at risk of seizing up. Authorities’s preliminary estimate of the economic cost of the recent floods in Beijing is 2.26 billion yuan ($360 million).
Over the past 30 years, floods have been getting bigger and more frequent around the world but no region has been more affected than the Asia-Pacific and no country in the region more than China. (A list of Asia’s worst floods since 2000 is here.) More than 100 million Chinese have moved from inland areas to flood-prone coastal cities in the past quarter of a century. Yet China has only recently started to shift its emphasis from reacting to urban flooding to preventing it, and, as it happens, at about the same stage in its development as Japan started to do three decades ago. Taiwan and South Korea have also since followed suit.
Floods in cities are both more costly and difficult to manage than those in the countryside. Building adequate main sewers and storm water drains to manage urban rainwater is straightforward enough in greenfield developments. The difficulties lie with older built-up areas. There sewers and storm drains are often old and inadequate, run-offs from hard surfaces absent, ground storage for rainwater scarce and ancient streams that could carry rainwater to rivers and ponds that could help it find its way to acquirers below, filled in. An irony of the Beijing floods is that the aquifer below the city is drier than ever. Redressing these problems are huge engineering tasks that cities cannot complete overnight. But starts have to be made. Beyond that are longer-term policy issues of not allowing development in flood-prone areas, giving local districts within cities the information to make their own local anti-flooding preparations, and making cities greener so they are less encouraging to extreme weather.
From 2011 to 2020, China’s investment in water conservancy projects, including flood defenses, is expected to reach 4 trillion yuan ($617 billion), almost four times as much as that spent during the previous 10 years. Yet nature has provided lakes and floodplains to do the same job. An important part of fighting floods, and one of China’s other perpetual natural disasters, drought, is the protection, restoration and reconnection of lakes, ponds, streams and floodplains so they can do what they do best: take in water when the river is high and give it back when it is low. Rivers and lakes cannot be infinitely sacrificed or bent to man’s will in the name of economic development. Urban planners have only just started to apply the lessons of that. China’s developers will have to be made to, too.
So serious has the depletion of China’s groundwater become as a result of industrialization and urbanization that the country’s large cities are sinking, as, potentially, are the high-speed rail corridors between them. So concerning is that to authorities that the State Council has made areas with high-speed rail links a priority in a new land subsidence research project it has approved to be completed by 2015. In the order of these things, that is a crash deadline.
The survey is one of four projects that the Ministry of Land and Resources said this week that the State Council had ratified to combat the effects of China’s growing water shortage. Others include yet more controls on pumping underground water, and the setting up of monitoring networks in the worst affected areas–the Yangtze river delta, the North China Plain and the Fen and Hua river basins. The network is to be in place by 2020.
It didn’t take any technology to see the 8 meter crack that opened up earlier this month in a road near the Shanghai World Financial Center. (There are some pictures here.) That is despite authorities taking preventive measures since 2005 to combat ground subsidence caused by falling water tables. Municipal officials say the city is still sinking by seven millimeters a year. That is a better state of affairs than in the past, however. Shanghai used to be sinking by several centimeters a year.
A third of China’s water reserves lie in underground aquifers. They supply 70% of the country’s drinking water and 40% of its farm irrigation needs. They are being stretched to their limits, particularly across the grain belt of the North China Plain as evermore wells are sunk to draw water for city dwellers and industry. Underground water pollution is a separate concern, but as serious.
Shanghai is one of more than 50 large cities with a similar Venice-like problem of subsidence because the water table below it is sinking. Beijing, Tianjin, Hangzhou and Xian are among others. As the number of 50 cities has been quoted since at least 2006, we suspect it may undercount the problem today. In a paper the China Geological Survey published that year the direct economic cost of subsidence was put at 1 billion yuan ($160 million) a year. It will likely top that now.
Tianjin, which like Shanghai has been sinking since the 1920s although it wasn’t until the 1960s that it was understood why, shows why widespread limits on groundwater pumping are so urgent, and also how difficult it is to control subsidence. The city introduced restrictions as long ago as 1985. Its sinking has slowed from 80 millimeters a year then but is still dropping 20 millimeters a year now. Coastal cities share another characteristic with Venice. Floods are becoming more frequent and severe. The lower cities sink the more susceptible they are to them.
We have noted before the potential explosive social costs of a water crisis getting beyond the government’s control. It will take a comprehensive program of water conservation, better water resource management and better husbandry of the ecosystem. And there are plans on all those fronts. But if they fail, it will be more than a high-speed train or two that comes off the rails.