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How long will China persist with its 'zero-COVID' strategy?

William Yang Taipei
November 10, 2021

Other hard-nosed countries have eased strict pandemic measures, but there is no sign that China is moving toward a policy of "coexisting" with coronavirus.

A worker disinfects a quarantine hotel in Wuhan, February 2020
China's strict measures earned praise at the beginning of the pandemicImage: STR/AFP/Getty Images

China is one of the last countries in the world to continue with a strict "zero-COVID" policy, which sometimes entails locking down entire cities if a single case is detected.

Even as such countries as Australia, New Zealand and Singapore recently relaxed strict zero-COVID policiesthat became untenable with the highly contagious delta variant of the coronavirus, China continues with its drive to completely eliminate COVID-19.

At the start of the pandemic, the Chinese Communist Party praised its authoritarian system as an example for controlling the pandemic.

Strict local lockdowns, mass testing of entire cities and travel restrictions are all credited with helping the country getting back to feet as the rest of the world suffered from surging cases and the prolonged economic disruption of lockdowns.

Though these strategies ensured that Chinese citizens could get back to a relative level of normalcy ahead of other parts of the world, experts question whether strict measures are still needed almost two years after SARS-CoV-2 was first detected in the central city of Wuhan .

Travel remains an ordeal in China

China's zero-COVID policy includes travel regulations with strict requirements for people entering the country, a reduction of international flights and up to three weeks of mandatory quarantine after arrival.

Some experts predict that China is unlikely to reopen until at least after the 2022 Beijing Olympics. Authorities announced in September that spectators from outside China would not be allowed to attend the games.

"I don't think China will ease public health measures before the Winter Olympics," said Chen Xi, an associate professor of public health at Yale University.

Flying to China with COVID-19

"The most recent outbreak came from the weeklong national holiday in China, which spread the virus to so many provinces across the country. That made the government worry that things could get worse if they reopen the border now," he added.

Over the past three days, China has reported more than 200 COVID cases. Close to 150 of those were domestically transmitted.

Does China trust its vaccines?

Several experts have pointed to the relatively low efficacy of China's domestically manufactured vaccines as a possible cause of the government's persistence to keep enforcing the zero-COVID strategy.

China's Sinovac and Sinopharm COVID vaccines were respectively 51% and 79% effective at preventing symptomatic infection, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), citing data from phase 3 trials.

Some experts say there are still some doubts about how effective the Chinese vaccines are against the delta variant. This is also combined with a lack of data shared publicly by Chinese authorities on how effective Chinese vaccines are against other variants.

"I think they don't have confidence in their own vaccine, so, despite having vaccinated more than 70% of its population, China didn't really relax their restrictions," said Chunhuei Chi, director of the Center for Global Health at Oregon State University in the US.

Karen Grepin, a public health professor at the University of Hong Kong, told DW that China is waiting for optimal conditions before lowering its guard.  

"While its vaccination rate is high, the vaccines that have been predominantly used are not as effective as some other vaccines," she said. "There are probably some concerns about that."

Will China adapt to 'living with the virus'?

Chen said the Winter Olympics and the 2022 National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party would factor into Beijing's decision on maintaining a zero-COVID policy.

China's COVID strategy inflicts 'higher burden'

"While those events may still seem far away, if there is an outbreak, government officials will be under tremendous pressure as that may send bad signals to the public," he said.

"Even from the local perspective," he said, "they will have the strong incentive to overreact rather than underreact."

Furthermore, the spread of the delta variant in 2021 only served to harden the official case domestically for keeping its tight pandemic policy in place.

Hu Xijin, the editor-in-chief of the state-run tabloid Global Times, wrote in an opinion piece earlier this month that China's zero-COVID policy must not be abandoned halfway.

Should China embrace the notion of "coexistence with the virus," he wrote, thousands of cases could emerge in the country again.

"The zero-COVID policy won't stay in China forever, but policy adjustments require the support of more breakthroughs in medical science, and such conditions are obviously not yet mature," he wrote.

"As far as today's situation is concerned," he wrote, "my observation is that the vast majority of Chinese people support the dynamic zero-COVID policy."

Grepin, from the University of Hong Kong, said it would be important for officials to have a clear plan for transitioning from total prevention to "living with the virus" before loosening restrictions.  

"I think it's an advantage for China to think through the plan before they make the transition," she said. "Until they have a good plan, I believe these measures should remain in place."