Dhe Wulumuqi Lu, which runs three kilometers through Shanghai, is one of the most beautiful roads in China. It is difficult for the state leadership. In the north, the best doctors in the country work in the Huashan Hospital. Take Zhang Wenhong, one of the leaders of China’s early fight against the pandemic. Like many Shanghainese, however, the head of the Department of Infectious Diseases has a loose mouth. In the middle of last year, Zhang faced national criticism for saying the world must learn to live with the virus. While that was scientifically correct, it contradicted the zero-Covid policy of state leader Xi Jinping. Allegations of plagiarism against the Shanghai doctor were promptly raised.
In the middle, Wulumuqi Lu is lined with posh apartment blocks full of expats who rent for big bucks and rich Chinese who call the living quarters their own. When Shanghai was in lockdown for two months in the spring, the international community broke through the locked gate at night and spent hours on Wulumuqi Lu meeting with a legion of police officers.
To the south of the street, a small army of soldiers and security guards guard the door of the American Consulate General against attempts by disgraced cadres to escape into exile. And a little further down the street, once on the right and after a ten-minute walk again, all sorts of security guards are standing in front of the alley with the house of former President Jiang Zemin, who died on Wednesday.
The fact that thousands of people demonstrated against China’s zero-Covid policy on Wulumuqi Lu over the weekend has only partly to do with the street name, which is borrowed from the capital of the northwestern Xinjiang region. Ten people died there in a high-rise fire because the fire brigade could not overcome the lockdown hurdles quickly enough. In Shanghai, the protesters not only demanded the end of the lockdowns, but also that of the communist dictatorship. Hardly anywhere else in the country does today’s leader seem so far removed from people’s lives with his ideas as he does here. While Xi Jinping stands for isolation, Jiang has opened up the country. Because his death could drive people back onto the streets, there have been even more police on Wulumuqi Lu since Wednesday.
Counter model to Xi
“We called him ‘toad,'” says 28-year-old Yi, whose real name is different, who attended the protests on Sunday and, like so many young Chinese in recent years, discovered Jiang as a cult figure. The quirkiness, the jokes, the desire for an open exchange of blows – many Chinese see a counter-model to Xi in all of this. Jiang was also able to take action. But private enterprise flourished under the reformer, who, with his big smile, discussed dictatorship and freedom in English on American television. After joining the World Trade Organization, China rose to become an economic superpower that no Western industrialized country could ignore.
For Yi, who aspires to be a journalist, all of that is in danger of being lost under Xi Jinping’s rule: curiosity about the world beyond national borders, the will to learn from mistakes and the belief that tomorrow will be a better day.
Things have been steadily getting worse for Yi since the pandemic began. Initially, the marketing agency she worked for alongside her studies paid her 20 percent of her salary instead of firing her when the economy came to a standstill due to the lockdown. The job is now gone. Yi can hardly believe that youth unemployment is said to have fallen by 2 points from the July peak of almost 20 percent. There are no jobs for younger people either. “Our parents pay our rent.”