No End in Sight for China's Lockdown Strategy To Beat COVID

For those in China hoping for a reprieve from the unpredictability of stringent COVID rules, there were encouraging signs in September when quarantine requirements were relaxed in Hong Kong, which had long been in lockstep with Beijing.

Hopes were dashed, however, when the central government tightened rather than loosened restrictions over the weekend after a spike in infections attributed to the China's week-long National Day holiday—already scaled down because of public health concerns.

This week, Chinese cities began mandating quarantine, travel restrictions and mass testing after COVID cases tripled to several thousand a day. Cities in Shanxi and Inner Mongolia, in northern China, restricted inbound and outbound travel, and implemented snap lockdowns known officially as "static management."

In neighborhoods in Shanghai, which ground to a halt during an Omicron wave in April and May, snap lockdowns also returned. The vast majority of new infections are mild or asymptomatic, yet an estimated 200 million people nationwide are living under some form of restriction as the government insists on eradicating each cluster under its policy of "dynamic zero COVID."

China's Xi Jinping Persists With Zero COVID
An image of President Xi Jinping of China is seen at an exhibition about the history of the Chinese Communist Party in Beijing on October 7, 2022. Xi is expected to extend his rule over the CCP after the party’s 20th National Congress begins on October 16. JADE GAO/AFP via Getty Images

China's hard and fast lockdowns were an uncompromising attempt to tamp down outbreaks in the early months of the pandemic before effective vaccines and therapeutics became widely available. The results spoke for themselves: the country still maintains among the lowest reported COVID mortality rates in the world.

Governments in the West sought to compel quarantine where they could, but most faced at least some public opposition over fears that sweeping emergency powers wouldn't be reserved. In contrast, a high degree of social control became the norm in China.

Snap lockdowns have continued in 2022 as part of the zero-COVID strategy. Some cities are experiencing their third major lockdown of the pandemic, a zero-tolerance approach, lasting weeks, that inevitably hits the national economy hard.

Owners of small and medium-sized businesses have suffered most, but some believe the uncertainties also may put off foreign investors.

President Xi Jinping perhaps saw China's initial containment of the virus as proof of effective governance. However, after linking the performance to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)'s political legitimacy and his own personal legacy, Beijing is now having to conduct a campaign-style defense of current policies.

Earlier in 2022, China dismissed World Health Organization chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus's view of zero COVID as unsustainable. The Chinese foreign ministry described his assessment as "irresponsible." Beijing insists its approach strikes the right balance between public health and the economy.

This week in the People's Daily, the party's leading newspaper, articles on three consecutive days called for public "confidence and patience" in the country's pandemic control and prevention measures.

One was simply titled "'Dynamic Zero COVID' Is Sustainable and Must Be Upheld." Another criticized the likes of Japan and the United States for deciding to "lie flat," a euphemism for giving up. The article warned of the effects of long COVID as well as difficulties in daily life after infection.

"In fact, some countries choose to 'lie flat' and adopt a policy of 'coexisting with the virus' not because they do not want to prevent and control the epidemic, but because they cannot and do not have the ability to do so," the People's Daily declared on Wednesday.

Coming in the days before the CCP's 20th National Congress, where Xi is expected to extend his rule and shuffle those in leadership positions around him, the articles are a major signal that zero COVID was untouchable, and that leaders don't want an outbreak to cast a shadow over the event.

On Weibo, one of China's main social media websites, reports about the People's Daily articles trended, but their comment sections were locked, a hint that the government had foreseen which way the wind would blow. But censorship won't make discontent—or the reality of COVID—go away.

About 90 percent of China's adult population have been fully vaccinated for at least six months, but policymakers still fear overwhelming the country's public health system by fully opening up, given the comparatively low vaccine uptake among the country's elderly, about 85 percent of whom are fully vaccinated.

The long-term efficacy of China's domestically produced shots is another uncertainty. Beijing is yet to consider approving American-made mRNA doses, which are more effective at preventing severe disease and could complement a policy of gradual reopening, which would inevitably result in an uptick in positive cases.

Coupled with China's low infection numbers since the start of the pandemic, it means its population has been unable to close the natural immunity gap after nearly three years.

China's Xi Jinping Persists With Zero COVID
Workers wearing protective gear stand next to barriers closing off streets around a locked down neighborhood after the detection of COVID-19 in the Huangpu district of Shanghai on March 17, 2022. Residential neighborhoods in Shanghai are back under snap lockdowns after a spike in cases following the October 1 National Day holidays. HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP via Getty Images

Yanzhong Huang, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations, said he saw "no meaningful difference" between the BF.7 strain currently spreading through China and the Omicron variant that hit Shanghai and other cities in spring.

Xi's refusal to approve foreign-made mRNA vaccines—partly because of nationalism and also a result of overstated safety concerns—was "one of the biggest puzzles of China's COVID response," Huang told Newsweek.

Separating the ideological components of China's approach from genuine concerns can be a challenge. In practice, the implementation of zero-COVID guidance has suffered from performative solutions: sealing off entire buildings, cordoning off individuals on sidewalks, and swabbing everything from frozen food to live fish and shoes.

The sweeping nature of quarantine has left the Chinese public neurotic—they never know when and where the next snap lockdown will trap them.

The People's Daily articles were striking, Huang said, a sign that "domestic and international pressure is mounting to a level where they have to say something to defend zero COVID."

"My understanding is that there's an emerging consensus in China's middle class, especially those in large cities, that zero COVID is not sustainable and should not be sustained."

Huang noted "rising discontent" over the excesses of the policy. The articles would've targeted this segment of the population, he said.

On Thursday, photos emerged of a rare protest in Beijing's Haidian district over the dire conditions experienced by certain sections of society.

China's public health policy quagmire is down to the government's interpretation of the virus and the level of threat it wants the general public to perceive.

Chinese health authorities portray Omicron as highly transmissible, which it is, but also highly virulent, a description that appears inconsistent with the government's own statistics about the percentage of patients with moderate or severe disease.

Huang suggests phasing out lockdowns with the help of effective triage measures and Omicron-targeted mRNA vaccines. Most importantly, Beijing will need to begin changing the way it talks about the virus and avoid allusions to an "existential threat," he observed in a recent Foreign Affairs article.

"If the government persists in shutting down entire urban areas whenever a few cases arise, China's economic slowdown could become an economic crisis," he wrote, a scenario that could threaten "long-term social, economic, and even political stability."

"Ultimately, it's a political decision, not a public health decision, because this zero COVID mentality change has to come from the very top right," he said.

There is a slim chance restrictions could be relaxed after this weekend's CCP congress, but Huang believes the strict policy could last until March 2023, when another major gathering known as the Two Sessions should confirm Xi's continuation as president and offer him another window to exit zero COVID.

Chinese institutions, meanwhile, will be quietly preparing for the moment the policy shift arrives.