At an elaborate awards ceremony inside the Great Hall of the People in September 2020, the Chinese leader Xi Jinping handed out medals and praised the country’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. China had “acted decisively” and “quickly achieved initial success in the people’s war against the coronavirus”, he said, “leading the world in economic recovery.” Xi himself was depicted taking personal charge of the situation, “marshalling national resources to fight the ‘invisible enemy’.” The pandemic response was added to the school curriculum as a lesson in the superiority of China’s political system under the Communist Party’s rule.
But while the mass lockdowns, stringent quarantine and testing requirements that have come to define the country’s “zero Covid” approach – which aims to keep cases as close to zero as possible – have succeeded in dramatically limiting the virus’s spread in China, the declarations of victory were premature.
A senior official at the World Health Organisation announced on 24 January that the pandemic was entering a “new phase”, and offered the first cautious hope for a return to normal life, but there is no such optimism in Beijing. In January alone, an estimated 20 million people were confined to their homes across the country and major international factories shuttered. But with the Chinese government either unable or unwilling to abandon its zero-tolerance approach, there is no end to those extreme measures in sight, particularly with the arrival of Omicron.
Less than two weeks before the start of the Beijing Winter Olympics on 4 February, the first cases of the highly transmissible variant have been detected in the capital. The outbreak has been traced to an individual with no history of recent travel, prompting fears that the virus is already circulating in the city, although officials have attempted to shift the blame to international mail. At least nine cities have reported Omicron cases, including neighbouring Tianjin, Shanghai and the high-tech manufacturing hub of Shenzhen in southern China.
The timing could not be worse. As well as the imminent arrival of close to 3,000 athletes from around the world for the Olympics, 1 February is the Lunar New Year – China’s biggest holiday and busiest travel period, when hundreds of millions of journeys would typically be made. Although this year, the third in a row, authorities are urging people to stay at home.
Chinese officials are also focused on preparations for the Communist Party’s 20th Congress this autumn, when Xi Jinping is expected to secure a third term as general secretary, cementing his status as the country’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong. The priority ahead of the congress is ensuring domestic stability and avoiding public crises, so the prospect of any easing of restrictions in the near term looks remote.
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For the Beijing Olympics, that means the strict rules that were already in place have been tightened further still. Athletes and support staff were already confined to a “closed-loop” bubble, intended to keep them separate from the broader population, and required to arrive fully vaccinated (or endure a 21-day quarantine) and submit to daily testing. But now some direct flights from the United States have been cancelled, access to Beijing has been restricted, and the organisers have announced that no tickets will be sold.
Instead, invited groups of pre-cleared spectators will applaud from the stands – cheering and shouting were already banned. Still, the foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian insisted the Olympics will proceed on schedule and China will deliver a “streamlined, safe and splendid Games to the world”.
The outlook beyond the Winter Olympics is more complicated. While vaccination levels in China are high – 87.6 per cent of the population is vaccinated – its existing vaccines are less effective than foreign mRNA alternatives, such as Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna, which have not been authorised for use in the country. Work to produce an indigenous mRNA vaccine is under way, but with no clear timeline confirmed.
China’s relative success in containing the virus to date has also led to low levels of natural immunity. Its public healthcare system is ill-equipped to cope with the surge in cases that would follow loosening restrictions. A study by researchers at Peking University, one of the country’s most prestigious institutions, found that even under the most optimistic scenario, moving towards the “herd immunity” model that some Western countries have adopted would likely see an immediate return to the case numbers of early 2020 in China, overwhelming hospitals and causing a “great disaster within the nation”.
“This is such a conundrum for the Chinese government,” Yanzhong Huang, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations, told me. “A large proportion of the country’s population is vulnerable to the virus, either because of the lack of natural immunity, or the lack of effectiveness of the vaccines, so the fear is that opening is going to lead to large outbreaks.” But with other countries shifting to a strategy of living with the virus, he questioned how long China could sustain its current approach. “Sooner or later, it will exceed the level where the cost exceeds the benefits,” Huang said.
Those costs are already mounting. The case of a woman in the central Chinese city of Xi’an who reportedly suffered a miscarriage after being forced to wait outside a hospital during a lockdown in early January circulated widely on social media, where the post was viewed more than six million times before it was deleted. Another resident claimed her father died after suffering a heart attack and being turned away from a hospital. Others warned that they were running out of food.
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Then there is the economic impact. China’s economy slowed significantly in the final quarter of 2021 as the ongoing pandemic restrictions weakened consumer spending and converged with concerns over the country’s troubled property market and regulatory crackdowns on the tech sector. Toyota and Volkswagen temporarily closed their manufacturing facilities in Tianjin during the city’s recent lockdown, and there are warnings of further disruptions to already strained global supply chains.
“China’s borders are likely to remain effectively closed for close to another year,” said Andrew Polk, head of economic research at Trivium China, a research consultancy. “That means very little outbound travel by Chinese, and it means that people can’t go into China. It’ll be disruptive for companies who do business there and it basically means that China will be an island.” And there is no end to that isolation in sight. “I think we’re at a place where, six to eight months from now, the rest of the world will have crossed the Rubicon towards endemic status, and China will not,” Polk said.
In a critical year for the Chinese Communist Party, which was meant to be focused on extolling the advantages of its rule, the leadership now finds itself facing an impossible choice: if it moves away from its zero-tolerance approach to Covid, the country could be plunged into a devastating public health crisis. If it doesn’t, it can’t rejoin the rest of the world.