A woman walks past a billboard depicting medical workers in Beijing. Photo: AP
Donald Low
Donald Low

Beijing’s insistence on zero-Covid strategy challenges long-held assumptions about China

  • Despite vaccinating three quarters of its eligible population, China shows no signs of transitioning to a Covid-endemic approach like the rest of the world
  • This challenges long-held assumptions about the Chinese state being a strong, high-capacity one that thinks long term, and about an isolationist China being the result of Western efforts to contain her
When the New Zealand government acknowledged at the start of October that it cannot eliminate Covid-19, that left China (including Hong Kong and Macau) as the only major country still pursuing a zero-Covid strategy. This is not just a public health choice; it is also likely to have long-term economic and geopolitical consequences.
There is little doubt that before the arrival of Covid-19 vaccines, the strict suppression approach pioneered by China – and mimicked across East Asia – was highly effective in limiting the spread of the coronavirus, preventing health-care systems from being crushed, and giving societies a certain degree of normality once infection numbers came under control.

There is also little doubt that most governments in the West bungled their initial response to Covid-19, resulting in much higher fatalities.

Can China afford to stay isolated as world abandons ‘zero Covid’?

Two factors have changed the Covid-19 calculus. The first is the emergence of the far more transmissible Delta variant and the second, of course, is the arrival of highly effective vaccines.

The combination of the two factors explains why in places with high vaccination rates, a relaxation of social restrictions has led to a surge in the number of infections, but a much smaller increase in deaths and cases requiring hospitalisation.

This gives other countries hope that once vaccinations reach a certain threshold, they can begin to deal with Covid-19 as endemic.

The only exception to this story of Covid-19 normalisation has been China. Despite having vaccinated about three quarters of the eligible population, authorities show no signs of letting up on zero-Covid and transitioning to a Covid-endemic approach. Its insistence on zero-Covid also reveals three truths about the Chinese state that go against the grain of conventional wisdom.


As more countries ditch ‘zero-Covid’ policy, why is China opting to ‘wait and see’?

As more countries ditch ‘zero-Covid’ policy, why is China opting to ‘wait and see’?

The Chinese state is not as strong as many think

In the early days of the pandemic, the world marvelled at China’s ability to construct temporary hospitals at lightning speed. During the pandemic, its ability to roll out compulsory mass testing each time new cases were detected, to impose citywide lockdowns, to suppress every local outbreak, and close previously porous land borders with its 14 neighbours won (grudging) admiration from many governments.

The Chinese propaganda machinery went into overdrive to declare war against Covid-19, and to portray even a single infection as a failure – on the part of the individual and the local government. Chinese propaganda has also been relentless in reminding citizens that the country’s success with Covid-19 shows that its system of government is morally superior to liberal democracy.

But by portraying Covid-19 as a mortal enemy and a morality play – a contest between good and evil, the Chinese state has made it all but impossible for its citizens to contemplate, much less accept, living with Covid-19. The public support for zero-Covid, while useful in the early stages of the pandemic, is increasingly an albatross around the neck that constrains the state’s ability to respond flexibly to the fact that for the rest of the world, the pandemic is becoming endemic.

Australia’s shift in messaging has lessons in leaving zero-Covid behind

Public opinion is now also highly mobilised in this “war”. When Zhang Wenhong, one of China’s leading epidemiologists, suggested living with Covid-19 next year, he was attacked online for being a traitor in wanting to imitate the West; he was also investigated by his alma mater over accusations of plagiarism his critics had levelled at him.

Besides an unforgiving, highly mobilised public, the lack of capacity in China’s health-care system also limits its ability to live with Covid-19. Beside the fact that China (so far) relies only on the traditional vaccine technology of inactivated viruses, there is also the more prosaic problem of overcrowded and under-resourced public hospitals – even before the pandemic.

The reality is that the Chinese state is both strong and weak. It is strong in mobilising public sentiment, in ensuring compliance, and in constructing new infrastructure. But it is considerably less capable in optimising between containment and mitigation measures, in sustaining a high level of investment in public health care, and in persuading its people to accept that Covid is here to stay. These things require capabilities that authoritarian governments usually lack: a respect for diversity and debate in policy choices, and an active citizenry that has the means to check and question the state.

The Chinese state struggles to think long term

One of the most enduring beliefs of Chinese statecraft is that the Chinese government, in sharp contrast to its counterparts in the West, has an unusually long-term orientation, that it thinks strategically, and that it is able to make trade-offs across time that would be considered impossible by Western governments faced with short electoral cycles. The Chinese also have a perception of themselves as being more patient and less likely to give in to short-term temptations; the Chinese saying 长痛不如短痛 – that short-term pain is preferable to long-term pain – being a simple expression of this stereotype.

But with Covid-19, Beijing has not provided any indication of how it would deal with the disease in the long term beyond maintaining its current zero-Covid stance.

Other countries are giving up ‘Covid zero’. China wants to wait and see

There’s another respect in which zero-Covid is a short-sighted policy. If China’s borders remain closed to the outside world for the next few years even as the rest of the world progressively gains more immunity to Covid-19, when it eventually opens up, Covid-19 (and whatever variant is circulating then) would come into contact with the world’s most Covid-naive population.

It is likely that there will be high levels of infection that could overwhelm China’s public hospitals. The alternative is to persist with the short-term strategy of zero-Covid, in the hope that over time the virus evolves into something like the flu and that scientists develop much more effective treatments for those who fall ill. But this could take many more years, with no guarantee of success.

An isolationist China may be the long-term result of its zero-Covid approach

Well before the pandemic, the conventional wisdom was that efforts to contain and isolate China would not only be ineffective in preventing China’s rise, but would also create an angry China that seethes and bristles at such efforts. And indeed, China has viewed any criticism of its handling of Covid-19 as an attack on its honour.

But Covid-19 has also led to an emergence of a particular form of Chinese nationalism: isolationism.

While trade in goods and services is still tolerated, the movement of people is not. Besides engaging in propaganda that scorns Western governments for their handling of Covid-19, the authorities have also been quiescent in the face of widespread perceptions of foreigners as carriers of the virus and as lacking in discipline. Many Chinese, fed by state media, also believe that the virus did not originate in China and that Western governments and media have been spreading falsehoods about China.

Overseas Covid-19 relaxations pose new challenges for China

But China’s zero-Covid strategy is entirely self-imposed; the West cannot be blamed for foisting zero-Covid on it. And when China eventually accepts that Covid-19 cannot be eliminated, its population is unlikely to welcome the world with open arms.

On the contrary, they will view the rest of the world as forcing the disease on them. It is also likely that state media would portray the West as using Covid-19 to contain China. The population’s antipathy would be directed at the West, not at the zero-Covid policy that put China in its quandary.

Needless to say, this isolationism would poison relations between China and the West for years to come.

Donald Low is senior lecturer and professor of practice in public policy, and director of the Institute for Emerging Market Studies at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology