The endless suffering of China’s “zero COVID” night scene

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The endless suffering of China's

Ai can hardly look to touring musicians either, as few are willing to make plans amid the constant risk of a sudden lockdown in any city where cases crop up.

“The zero-COVID policy makes the live music business incredibly uncertain and unpredictable,” Ai told Al Jazeera.

While sweeping restrictions that shuttered restaurants and other businesses have been lifted in major cities such as Beijing and Shanghai, countless bars, karaoke joints, nightclubs and concert venues across the country are still waiting to emerge from restrictions introduced months earlier in the year.

China’s ultra-strict “dynamic zero-COVID” strategy, under which entire cities are shut down over a handful of cases, has taken an especially heavy toll on the country’s live music and entertainment establishments, which are typically among the last businesses to benefit from easing restrictions.

Story Highlights

  • Since a prohibition on live concerts in the capital introduced in April drove many artists out of business, Ai, who operates the concert booking service Haze Sounds, finds it difficult to hire musicians these days.

  • Meanwhile, music buffs are wary of coming into contact with COVID-positive concertgoers and having to quarantine, putting a damper on ticket sales.

In Beijing’s usually bustling Chaoyang district, a cocktail bar owner who spoke on condition of anonymity said that her establishment remains closed, even though bars in sleepier districts have been permitted to reopen.

“They think bars or clubs are only for fun and should be closed,” the bar owner told Al Jazeera, adding that the authorities’ rigid stance is leading many of her fellow bar owners “to think Beijing isn’t a good place for bars in the future.”

Xin Sun, a senior lecturer in Chinese and East Asian business at King’s College London, said authorities have taken a particularly hard line on entertainment establishments due to their association with major outbreaks earlier in the pandemic. The bar attracted unyielding scrutiny not only because of the size of the outbreak — involving 287 cases, according to state media – but also because its management “impeded the prevention of infectious diseases”.

Following the outbreak, authorities revoked the bar’s licence and launched a criminal case against the owner. Although such superspreader events have attracted attention, single-digit infections have been enough to grind cities to a halt.

In Wugang, a city in Henan province known for producing steel, a single positive case prompted authorities to put the entire population of 300,000 in lockdown for three days starting from July 11. Partial lockdowns and business closures covering millions of people have been introduced in Xian, Lanzhou, Haikou, Macau, and Anhui province in recent weeks. Xin of King’s College said the severity of future restrictions could depend on the city or province in which infections are detected.

For Marco Chao, the owner of Bubble Lab Brewing, the constantly shifting restrictions and policy uncertainty has led him and his team to brew more canned beer for sale online and at shops. “That way we don’t have to rely on bars, which are more easily affected by lockdowns and quarantine,” Chao, whose business has locations in Wuhan, Hubei province and Changzhou, Jiangsu province, told Al Jazeera.

“For major cities such as Beijing and Shanghai, if the cases are not particularly high, what we are more likely to see is local lockdowns at neighbourhood levels.” “If a massive outbreak occurs, as has been the case more recently in the two counties in Anhui, I would argue local governments will be forced to impose draconian lockdowns to ensure zero COVID to be achieved and show their political loyalty to the party’s policy line,” he said.’