In late September, Tashi, a student in a rural village of fewer than 100 people in south-eastern Tibet, returned to school after a six-week lockdown.

The 15-year-old’s grades had deteriorated markedly after weeks of trying to take classes on a smartphone with patchy internet in a crowded house while being cared for by ageing grandparents. His parents were 750km away in Lhasa, the capital, working.

“It was very difficult to concentrate during the lockdown. My three younger siblings were also taking classes in a noisy house,” he says, sitting next to baskets of dried fungi and herbal medicines, which are his village’s main trade.

“Now we’re back at school, I’m still lagging behind after months of trying. It’s very demoralising.”

Tashi, whose name has been changed to protect his identity, is one of the hundreds of millions who make up China’s “Covid generation” — the children whose lives have been upended through cycles of lockdowns under Xi Jinping’s hallmark zero-Covid policy.

In December, Xi’s administration embarked on a stunning U-turn. The pandemic controls of relentless lockdowns, mass testing and quarantine and fastidious electronic contact tracing are being rapidly unravelled.

The change of course has many causes — from the spontaneous protests that broke out in apartment buildings across the country to the toll the policy was taking on the economy. But one of the least discussed factors has been the way that the zero-Covid policy has sharpened China’s already high levels of social inequality, especially between urban and rural residents — one of the most important political faultlines in society.

Many young people from rural areas or the urban lower classes have been forced to study online and have been separated from their parents for long periods over the past three years. The result is that their education — hitherto their only path to upward social mobility — hangs in the balance.

Chart showing China’s western provinces have fewer doctors to cope with Covid surge

The sudden abandonment of the zero-Covid playbook has led to an alarming spike in Covid-19 infections and, according to some forecasts, could lead to millions of deaths over the winter. Before the reopening, Chinese doctors and nurses warned that the country was unprepared for an exit wave given thinly resourced hospitals and medical clinics, and nearly 90mn Chinese aged 60 and over who had not received three vaccine doses. Now, the healthcare system is being overwhelmed with a deluge of sick patients and funeral providers cannot keep up with demand for their services.

Beyond the immediate health crisis, which could persist for months, the true extent of the damage wrought upon Chinese society by Xi’s hallmark policy is only just emerging.

For large swaths of the country’s 1.4bn people, the pandemic shattered the fragile balance that once supported the back-and-forth movement of people such as Tashi’s parents from rural areas to large cities. Zero-Covid’s vast web of intersecting restrictions hammered low-income families and in many cases left people cut off from their loved ones.

China-focused economists, market analysts and media have mostly paid attention to the hit to consumer spending and disruptions to factories and supply chains. China’s more developed eastern and southern megacities, such as Shanghai, Chongqing, Shenzhen and Guangzhou have dominated headlines. But many of the areas that have been locked down for the longest have been largely out of sight.

By the time Beijing unveiled its policy pivot, heightened restrictions were still being enforced across more than a dozen regions, including Inner Mongolia, Shaanxi, Heilongjiang and Liaoning in China’s northern rustbelt, as well as Xinjiang in the west and central Hubei.

But as the restrictions have been unwound, it is becoming clear that the pandemic’s scars are deepest among children in many of these areas, experts say. Rising inequality, which is heavily influenced by access to education, will in the coming years carry long-term repercussions for Xi and the ruling Chinese Communist party. Adding to the bleak outlook, China’s youth unemployment rate has been near-record levels and the brunt of the impact is shouldered by those born into poorer households.

Migrant workers and their relatives queue as they prepare to get on a special train before departing to Shenzhen, in Yichang in China’s central Hubei province on March 23 2020
Families queue for a train to Shenzhen in March 2020. Many children from rural areas have been separated from their parents for long periods over the past three years © AFP via Getty Images

The Financial Times spoke to more than 20 children, teachers, academics and mental health experts. Most asked not to be named, citing the risks of repercussions.

“The zero-Covid policy has impacted the poor more than the rich. It exacerbates the Dickensian divide between the haves and have-nots in China,” says Diana Fu, an expert on China’s domestic politics with the Brookings Institution think-tank.

“When young people can’t find jobs, small business owners go bankrupt, migrant workers are evicted, and infected children are separated from their families, it makes people question whether the government is holding up its end of the bargain.”

Scars of lost learning 

The coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated educational inequalities globally. At the height of the nationwide lockdowns in 2020, the UN estimated that nearly 1.5bn school children were affected by school closures, a third of which did not have access to remote learning facilities.

However, the problems facing China’s 291mn students stand out because of just how long Beijing persisted in using lockdowns to try to contain the virus.

Before the pandemic struck, China was making progress towards narrowing the educational gap between the country’s urban rich and rural poor. This involved huge state investments in schools in rural areas and fiscal reforms to pay teachers’ wages from the central government coffers rather than strained local accounts.

A banner displaying the Chinese core socialist values is seen through the entrance of a closed secondary school in Wuhan
A shut school in Wuhan, with a banner displaying the Chinese core socialist values. The coronavirus outbreak from the city led to a rush to expand connectivity so education could shift online © Stringer/Reuters

“It moved from being very, very, very unequal to very, very unequal,” says Scott Rozelle, an expert on educational inequality in China at Stanford University.

In early 2020, as the first outbreak of coronavirus exploded from the central Chinese city of Wuhan, Beijing’s education officials rushed to expand network connectivity to rural areas to ensure schools across the country could shift online.

Yet despite these efforts, Nancy, a maths teacher at a middle school in Qujing, a small town in Yunnan, near the southern border with Myanmar and Vietnam, says there has been a noticeable decline in the quality of her students’ English and maths skills, two subjects that require “high levels of teacher intervention”. 

A veteran of more than 20 years in the classroom, Nancy does not blame the children. She feels “clumsy” teaching through video conferencing platforms.

“What a mess,” she says, while checking students’ homework in their first week back to school. More than half of her students are unable to solve mathematical problems taught during lockdown and their basics have also regressed. “Predictable but still heartbreaking.”

“We are teaching easier maths now than prior to the pandemic,” she adds, noting also: “Students from better-off families have done better, especially when parents are around to help them study.” 

This chimes with the findings made by researchers at the Institute for Economic and Social Research at Jinan University in south-eastern China. After the first lockdown in 2020, they concluded that the “learning gap” between students with parents who graduated from university and those with parents with primary school education had “enlarged” since before the pandemic.

“The internet supply was there mostly in rural areas, but the quality of the connection wasn’t great, and many of the children in rural areas did not have exclusive access to a mobile or laptop like their urban counterparts,” says Terry Sircular, an economist and expert on social inequality at the University of Western Ontario.

Shelly Lin, an English teacher at a high school in Dongxing, Guangxi, says the deterioration in learning during the lockdown is obvious. Her students took an exam after returning to school after the summer lockdown ended. “The results were poor,” she says. “But we didn’t have time to reteach the material all over again.”

After the arrival of the Omicron variant in late 2021, Xinjiang — the western region where Beijing has been accused of widespread human rights abuses against Uyghurs and other ethnic minority groups — was among the places to return to lengthy periods under lockdown.

A high school student has an online class via his smartphone at home on March 9 2020 in Meishan, Sichuan Province of China.
A secondary school student has an online class via his smartphone in Meishan, Sichuan province. Teachers in China say there has been a decline in the quality of students’ abilities © Liu Zhongjun/China News Service via Getty Image

Lily, a high-school student from Hotan, in Xinjiang’s south-west, says a stark divide also emerged between students attending China’s equivalent of a grammar school attended by children — both from the majority Han ethnicity and Uyghur Muslims — with good grades and Mandarin skills, and those at the local schools in small cities populated predominantly by Uyghur students.

“The quality of the classes for us who stayed at home for online classes was really poor. Our school buildings were even turned into quarantine facilities,” she says.

Children left behind 

China’s household registration system, the “hukou”, has long been derided as a source of entrenched inequality, preventing migrant families from equal access to basic services when they move from rural to urban areas. While there have been some reforms to lower the threshold for hukou registration in some areas, the system still means the vast majority of migrant workers are forced to leave their children in the countryside, typically in the care of grandparents — the so-called left-behind children.

Experts say that this has compounded the hurdles facing poorer children during the pandemic, threatening students’ chances of obtaining a prized place at one of China’s top universities — a setback with potentially life-long consequences.

“They are already at a disadvantage. Add to those months of not being able to access online education. In a highly competitive schooling system, that will have an impact on their ability to get into a good high school and then go to college,” says Rozelle.

In August, a region-wide lockdown was quickly introduced in Tibet following the emergence of dozens of positive coronavirus cases. The school term was delayed and students began to take online classes at home.

In Tashi’s case, the home had three electronic devices: one laptop and two mobile phones. With four children attempting to complete their online classes, one had to watch the playback at night, while Tashi also had to tutor the younger children.

He would try to snatch windows of concentration, sitting outside on the wooden floor straining to read words on a small screen in the harsh sunlight of the Tibetan plateau.

“I couldn’t handle doing my studies and looking after my siblings. I feel so weak using the pandemic as an excuse. But after the lockdown, I feel like my studies, and life, have started to slip,” he says.

“Of course I hoped to find a decent job by studying . . . ” Tashi, suddenly switching from his native Tibetan to Mandarin to emphasise the point, adds: “But after the lockdown, I felt there was no hope for my education . . . when I finish middle school, I’ll quit school and get a job.”

Such despondence among the youth is setting off alarm bells among people involved in mental health services.

Dr George Hu, chair of the mental health department at Shanghai United Family Pudong Hospital, has been on the frontline of psychiatric care in China during the pandemic and says researchers are only “just beginning to scratch the surface” of the period’s long-term impact on mental health.

A student wearing a mask prepares to receive nucleic acid testing for the Covid-19 coronavirus at a high school in Harbin, Heilongjiang
A student at a secondary school in Harbin, Heilongjiang province, receives a Covid test. The pandemic controls of relentless lockdowns and mass testing are being rapidly unravelled © Fan Yingjie/China News Service via Getty Images

Hu, a clinical psychologist, believes that for many of China’s young, lockdowns have already “ripped out their previous understanding” of Chinese society and state controls.

“When the lockdowns happened younger people were thinking, ‘How could this happen?’ A lot of the older generation thought, ‘This could happen, and it could be worse.’”

Hu notes that provision of psychiatric services in Chinese hospitals and counselling in the country’s education system had been “tacking in the right direction” with greater accessibility and oversight. But for most people, accessing mental health services requires the ability to both pay upfront and to take the necessary time off work.

Suicide data is patchy in China — data collection is based on certain municipalities as a sampling station and national statistics are not published — making it impossible to know the pandemic’s full toll.

Hu says that in China — and other parts of east Asia — suicide is often linked to a feeling of “perceived burdensomeness” where people feel their presence is a strain for their family and wider community.

“I’m trying to be sensitive here, but the pandemic has increased stress, stress is not good for coping or ‘perceived burdensomeness’. There is a correlation between that and suicide. The exact numbers, I wouldn’t know. But attention has to be paid to this.”

Party legitimacy on the line 

China’s success in tackling poverty in the decades after Mao Zedong’s death — lifting 800mn people over 40 years — has long served to bolster the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist party and its leaders.

Now the collateral damage to the Covid generation is sowing seeds of doubt in the wisdom of the party — and its leader.

A person holds a banner during a protest in solidarity over the coronavirus restrictions in mainland China, during a commemoration of the victims of a fire in Urumqi outside the Chinese consulate in Toronto, Ontario, Canada
An activist outside the Chinese consulate in Toronto, Canada, holds a banner protesting against Xi Jinping after demonstrations that began in China spread round the world © Chris Helgren/Reuters

Despite the dangers inherent in public displays of dissent, frustration among younger Chinese and opposition to Xi’s policies have become increasingly evident over recent months.

Simmering angst boiled over in November when a fire in a locked-down apartment complex in Ürümqi, the capital of Xinjiang, was blamed for the deaths of 10 people. Since then, monitoring by Nathan Ruser and colleagues at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute think-tank tracked more than 100 protests and acts of public resistance across 39 cities. While not challenging Xi’s grip on power, the number and location of the protests, including the initial spark in remote western Ürümqi, highlighted just how widespread frustrations had become.

No clear explanation has been given by Xi or his top lieutenants for the stunning about-turn. But it came days after the protests and followed months of slowing growth in the world’s second-biggest economy as well as acute financial pressure from local governments who were on the hook for paying for the policy’s draconian enforcement.

Fu, of Brookings, says that the legacy of the protests will go far beyond the zero-Covid policy reversal. The period marks, she says, a turning point for a generation who have no memory or knowledge of the 1989 Tiananmen democracy movement: “China’s Václav Havel moment”.

“Václav Havel had described people living under communist Czechoslovakia as greengrocers who put up signs supporting the regime’s policies, thus becoming a part of the system of oppression,” she says. “Prior to the protests, Chinese citizens had largely complied with the zero-Covid policy as citizens under any authoritarian system would. However, the protests showed that not all Chinese people are greengrocers; some are daring to dissent for the first time.”

Recent online discussion in China has centred increasingly on the folly of the government’s lack of preparation for the zero-Covid U-turn. But for weeks, discussions with sharper political undertones have also raged. On the microblogging site Weibo, a topic entitled “What would university life be like without the Covid?” received more than 550mn views. In another, a discussion based on a popular claim by college students that the pandemic has “stolen their youth” was read more than 4.3mn times on the question-and-answer website Zhihu.

“[Students] were like birds in chains, walking down the road, coming and going with masks, unable to recognise whether each other was crying or laughing,” said a Zhihu user Julya, who offered one of the most popular answers.

As teachers and students are caught up in the overwhelming Covid wave, schools across the country are being forced back to online classes and life-defining exams have been postponed or cancelled.

Yu Jie, a China expert with Chatham House think-tank, observes that the country has not felt such a stark generational divide since Mao’s chaotic rule: “Older people have a clear memory of the cultural revolution and the Great Famine of the 1960s. This [current] period may not be the most drastic period they can remember. It is really the younger Chinese generation who will have the most painful memories of the pandemic.”

She adds that there is also a sense of exhaustion among much of China’s middle class, dashing hopes of an economic recovery based on pent-up consumer demand.

“We’re going to enter a very long phase of stagnation of the Chinese economy . . . For me, that’s the biggest uncertainty,” Yu says, adding that the resulting inequality appears to be “very Dickensian”. 

Fu says that ultimately Xi’s zero-Covid policy has put on the line a fundamental pillar of the party’s legitimacy: the promise of a basic living standard for Chinese citizens.

“The party’s social contract with 1.4bn people is that it would provide for needs such as jobs, housing, food and security in exchange for popular support of its rule and acceptance of limitations on political rights,” she says. “To the extent that these basic social rights have been taken away during the pandemic, this poses a legitimacy dilemma for Beijing.”

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