Editor’s Note: Robert Mahoney is executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists and coauthor with Joel Simon of “The Infodemic: How Censorship and Lies Made the World Sicker and Less Free,” which publishes Tuesday. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.

CNN  — 

China’s authoritarian surveillance state crushed Covid-19 when it first appeared in Wuhan in early 2020 and trumpeted that success to the world. Now, more than two years later, the Omicron variant is running rings around Beijing’s zero-Covid strategy – and apparently nobody in power dare say so.

The very rigidities of the political system built by the Chinese Communist Party are hampering the country’s ability to handle the highly infectious Omicron variant with anything other than a game of lockdown Whac-A-Mole.

China’s mastery of censorship, propaganda and social control checked Covid-19’s initial spread and allowed Beijing to tout its successful response amid international discussion on the virus’ origins. But censorship is a double-edged sword that is now isolating Beijing’s policy elite and hampering the upward flow of timely and accurate information from the ground.

This infodemic – the censoring and undermining of the truth – is costing China dearly.

Since mid-March, more than 70 cities, which account for 40% of national economic output, have implemented Covid-control measures. The implications not just for the Chinese economy but also world trade and already-strained supply chains have economists worried.

Nowhere is this more evident than in Shanghai, the jewel of China’s economic crown.

As city officials noticed an uptick in infections, they tried partial lockdowns, hoping to block the spread without harming commerce. But that failed to stop infections, which surged fivefold in the first weeks of April to some 20,000 cases a day. Much of the population, especially the elderly, are not vaccinated. China’s Sinovac’s CoronaVac vaccine is also reported to be not very effective against Omicron.

Eventually the Shanghai government reverted to the Wuhan playbook and sealed shut the metropolis of 25 million people. Zero-Covid entails literally locking some people in their homes, mass testing, sending the infected to quarantine centers and restricting most social interaction in an attempt to stop community spread.

The heavy-handed and arbitrary way in which it was done in Shanghai backfired. Popular anger boiled over on social media platforms such as WeChat and Weibo against food shortages, forcible confinement and the separation of children from parents.

One man placed an empty refrigerator on his apartment balcony to complain about the lack of fresh produce. Scenes of medical workers in hazmat suits shoving people around and one video of a worker beating a possibly infected dog to death with a shovel went viral.

The outrage at family separations was such that authorities hurriedly abandoned the practice. And when some residents began shouting angrily out of their apartment windows, a surveillance drone warned: “Control your soul’s desire for freedom. Do not open the window or sing.”

Adding to the discontent were reports authorities had delayed publicizing the upsurge until after two important CCP meetings in Beijing, in early March. Also, in a leaked recording of a phone call with a distraught Shanghai resident, an official from a local office of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention admitted the health system was in disarray, test results were rigged to downplay case numbers, and health professionals’ advice was ignored.

“This pandemic has become a political issue that’s consuming so much manpower, resources, and money, just to solve this flu-like disease. What other country do you think is doing this kind of epidemic prevention now?” the official asked in the recording.

The answer is none. Few countries, even the most autocratic, have the surveillance network and social control mechanisms to impose anything like zero-Covid.

Internet blocking and filtering, combined with a small army of human censors and ubiquitous CCTV cameras and facial recognition software, act as a circuit-breaker between words and action.

The state pounces on any attempts at political organizing that might challenge its hold on information and power. Officials could not stop people shouting from the rooftops and posting smartphone videos, but the protests were not amplified by mainstream media, which is held tightly in check.

The flow of information in China is essentially top-down. Accurate grass-roots reports, especially those that cast the regime in a bad light, rarely penetrate up to policymakers.

President Xi Jinping is now so identified with zero-Covid that to change course would be a huge political climbdown as he positions himself for an almost unprecedented third term in office at the 20th party congress this fall.

By most measures, China has fared better than many other countries in handling Covid-19. It has recorded just nine deaths per million inhabitants compared with 2,983 for the United States, although its narrow definition of Covid-19 deaths may partially account for that.

It has contained the spread of the disease and until now projected an image of government competence.

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    But as the lockdown in Shanghai has shown, it has all come at great cost to the economy and the individual well-being and liberty of ordinary Chinese citizens.

    Some of them may be happy with the trade-off. But even in China’s censored information landscape, it seems that a growing number of people aren’t.