ASPI Note: Breaking the Chains — Charting a New Course on Zero-COVID
For the first time in almost three years, China has announced a formal move away from its zero-COVID policy. On November 30, Vice Premier Sun Chunlan — who among other tasks oversees national health policy — described the Omicron variant as “less pathogenic” and broke with precedent in not mentioning the “dynamic zero-COVID” policy (动态清零). On the same day, Guangzhou and Chongqing loosened their COVID restrictions. Sun’s comments follow the announcement of a possible fourth vaccine rollout targeted at the elderly, the demographic with the lowest vaccination rates in China. These moves also follow protests against China’s COVID management strategy that picked up steam after a deadly fire in Urumqi in late November and continued over several days throughout China. These protests have been met with support from the Chinese diaspora, who have also organized actions against the zero-COVID policy in cities around the world. Some protests also called for an end to the extralegal detention of Uyghurs, an end to Chinese Communist Party (CCP) rule, and Xi Jinping’s resignation. These changes in China’s COVID-19 policies are consistent with ASPI’s previous analysis arguing that Beijing risks being trapped by its zero-COVID policy and China is ‘Crab-Walking’ it's way to opening by mid-2023.
How did we get here?
China’s zero-COVID policy has been the status quo since the initial widespread outbreak of the virus in January 2020. It is characterized by lockdowns, business closures, mass testing, intrusive surveillance, quarantine requirements, and domestic and international travel restrictions. The policy attempts to achieve and maintain a community transmission rate of zero — in an effort to eliminate the virus.
There are two core factors that have prevented the movement toward relaxing the zero-COVID policy. The first is political pride and rigidity. When central authorities decided to pursue stringent control measures in 2020, China projected a positive image on the world stage as having managed the virus effectively. This narrative also enabled them to argue domestically that democratic nations like the United States, immersed in deadly and uncontrollable outbreaks, had failed. Beijing’s strong handle on virus control also allowed China to initially re-open domestically earlier than the rest of the world and sustain very few fatalities. The intrusive aspects of the zero-COVID policy were also unevenly applied. Since the start of the zero-COVID policy, specific cities have been put on lockdown while the majority of the population has mostly enjoyed life as normal. But the Omicron outbreaks of 2022 sparked expanded and severe quarantine measures in many of China’s megacities, of which the spring 2022 Shanghai lockdown was the most internationally visible.
The second and most critical factor has to do with the effectiveness and distribution of China’s vaccines. The country has comparably low vaccination rates, especially among the elderly. But even for those individuals who are vaccinated in China — about 90 percent of the population have received the first course and about 56 percent have received a booster dose — the overwhelming majority have taken Sinovac, which is relatively ineffective against Omicron. China’s oldest residents are therefore in danger of facing severe illness and possible death at a massive scale if a sudden reopening was to occur. Therefore, the regime had concluded that protecting both its older population and its political reputation was more important than the domestic social and economic cost of continued lockdowns.
What informed China’s changing calculus?
Two factors explain the shift in COVID-policy. First, the widespread and spontaneous nature of protest activity has signaled to the regime that the zero-COVID policy now threatens social stability — in addition to its negative impact on China’s economy. Second, the authorities appear to have concluded that pushing (and even enforcing) a comprehensive vaccination regime for the elderly is the least-worst option, in spite of their initial reluctance to be seen forcing jabs on an aged and often enfeebled population. Furthermore, the BioNTech Bivalent Vaccine arrived in Hong Kong in late November, following discussions between German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Xi Jinping on the BioNTech Vaccine being made available for foreigners living in China, with the possibility of extending that access to Chinese citizens. Additionally, there are reports that PRC citizens traveling to Macau will also be able to receive mRNA vaccines.
It, therefore, seems increasingly likely that China will pursue a gradual domestic and international reopening over the next six months, similar to that of Hong Kong. The Hong Kong model saw a gradual easing of restrictions in line with its capacity to manage COVID-19 cases. Given the relative success of the model, it is likely Mainland China will follow suit. A gradual easing of restrictions will also allow China time to take internal steps to strengthen its hospital system’s infrastructure and capacity. Similarly, staggered opening up provides time for individuals to be vaccinated and for their vaccinations to be at optimal effectiveness when all restrictions are lifted.