China Reveals It Will Stick to 'Zero-COVID' Strategy Until End of 2022

China has revealed its intention to maintain its strict "zero-COVID" policy until the end of the year, when a major political event intended for changes in leadership could instead see Xi Jinping secure an unprecedented third term.

Ma Xiaowei, the head of China's National Health Commission, cautioned the nation and fellow Chinese Communist Party members against complacency, dismissing "wrong thinking" about coexisting with the virus and "misconceptions" about Omicron variants becoming flu-like.

Writing in the Study Times, a journal published by the CCP's Central Party School, Ma urged health workers to carry the "spirit of struggle" and maintain emergency status. The ongoing pandemic must be met with the central government's "national playbook," he said—Xi's strategy of "dynamic zero COVID."

Ma's call for the country to "consolidate hard-won achievements" against COVID in order to "welcome the party's successful 20th National Congress" is the clearest indication yet that the no-tolerance approach—mandating lockdowns in Shanghai and elsewhere—is closely linked to the twice-a-decade CCP event this fall, rumored to take place in November. The congress is expected to confirm Xi in office for another term.

In 2018, Xi oversaw the abolition of term limits for China's head of state, effectively allowing him to remain ruler of life. But the legitimacy of his governance still matters; he will be required to further justify it in the coming months.

The zero-COVID approach—a political decision with far-reaching social and economic costs—was his plan, and he bears the burden of seeing it through. It means a potentially never-ending cycle of snap lockdowns across major Chinese cities until Beijing can declare victory over the pandemic once more.

"General Secretary Xi Jinping has always attached great importance to the prevention and control of the novel coronavirus epidemic," and he continues to "give important guidance at every critical juncture," Ma wrote in the Study Times.

Relaxing restrictions in China, where medical resources are unevenly distributed, would threaten the well-being of people including those with underlying conditions, the elderly, children and pregnant women, he argued. It would also have a serious impact on the stable development of the economy and society, he said.

"The people wouldn't agree to it," Ma wrote. "The party and the government would never allow this to happen."

China's 'Zero COVID' to Remain Throughout 2022
A health worker wearing personal protective equipment performs a swab test for COVID-19 inside a residential compound during a lockdown in Pudong district, Shanghai, China, on April 19, 2022. Ma Xiaowei, the director of China’s National Health Commission, suggested the country could maintain its “zero-COVID” policy until the end of the year, in a commentary piece published in the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Party School journal the Study Times on April 18. LIU JIN/AFP via Getty Images

Unrelenting epidemic prevention; limiting the spread of the virus; and minimizing infections, serious illness and deaths are among the core focuses of Xi's guidance, the official said, citing the Chinese leader's call for "scientific, precise and dynamic zero COVID."

The policy aims to ensure zero transmission of the virus within society, while aggressively isolating positive cases—with or without symptoms—and close contacts. This requires the allocation of further quarantine rooms and facilities, as well as the construction of more field hospitals, work which needs speeding up, Ma said in the party paper.

As of Tuesday, China's outbreak in Shanghai still accounted for 95 percent of all cases in the country, but its 20,416 infections on April 18 were the lowest in more than two weeks. A citywide lockdown has been in place since March 28.

However, despite more than 300,000 positive cases discovered in the cluster, Shanghai has reported 10 official deaths among unvaccinated senior patients with underlying health conditions. A further 21 people remain in serious condition, officials said.