China’s ‘Zero COVID’ Policy Is Going to Last a Whole Lot Longer

“It is a slap in the face to those who anticipate an imminent and significant policy pivot.”
REGULAR COVID TESTS HAVE BECOME THE NORM UNDER CHINA'S ZERO COVID POLICY. ​PHOTO: NOEL CELIS/AFP
REGULAR COVID TESTS HAVE BECOME THE NORM UNDER CHINA'S ZERO COVID POLICY. PHOTO: NOEL CELIS/AFP

Those who have hoped that China would lift its draconian pandemic control measures soon are in for a rude awakening. 

Beijing just offered the clearest sign that its zero-COVID policy is not going anywhere. For three days in a row, People’s Daily, the official newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party, doubled down on the need for stringent curbs to guard against new coronavirus strains.

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It is not possible to win the COVID battle by “lying flat,” the paper wrote on Wednesday, citing a phrase that means doing nothing. “A relaxation of virus prevention and control will inevitably increase the risk of infection among vulnerable people,” Tuesday’s commentary read. On Monday, the paper described the policy as “scientific and effective” and called for patience. 

China follows a zero-tolerance approach that seeks to stamp out any outbreak by putting entire districts and even cities under lockdown, and isolating positive cases in centralized quarantine. The commentaries essentially repeated the same argument that such a policy is necessary to keep the death toll low. But they came ahead of a sensitive political meeting that begins on Sunday and thus crushed hopes that the country may finally relax the restrictions.

“It is a slap in the face to those who anticipate an imminent and significant policy pivot after the 20th Party Congress,” wrote Yanzhong Huang, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations. 

In fact, the country’s COVID controls have gone into overdrive to make way for the party congress.  Shanghai on Monday mandated mass testing at least twice a week and put a growing number of districts back into lockdown following a minor flare-up. The northwestern city of Xian closed schools and public spaces this week, after reporting double-digit COVID cases. 

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The country has reported around 2,000 new cases each day this week, which is low by global standards. But as of Monday, China has put 36 cities under various degrees of lockdown or control, affecting about 197 million people, according to Japanese investment bank Nomura.

The measures have battered the country’s economy and fuelled public discontent and misery. Last month, 27 were killed after a bus transferring residents to centralized quarantine crashed in southwestern China, putting a spotlight on the human cost of the policy. More recently, in the tech hub of Shenzhen and the airport of Xishuangbanna in southwestern China, snap lockdowns have sparked rare protests, where residents clashed with security officers.

Nevertheless, calls for an exit ramp have largely gone unheeded and comments critical of the policy are censored online, including remarks by the WHO chief, who called the policy unsustainable earlier this year.

Beijing remains concerned that with its large population of unvaccinated elderly, COVID fatalities could soar if it lifts restrictions. Meanwhile, homegrown mRNA vaccines are still in clinical trials, and negotiations to import foreign jabs have fallen apart. 

As the party congress ushers in an expected third term for Chinese President Xi Jinping, all signs showed that his flagship policy may also be here to stay.

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