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Is China ready to give up its zero-COVID strategy?

William Yang Taipei
December 2, 2022

Statements by authorities suggesting a relaxation of pandemic control measures look more like a move to relieve political pressure than a turnaround in policy. Experts say fully opening is still too risky.

A man receives a throat swab
Chinese authorities have said they are open to adapting 'one size fits all' pandemic policies Image: Anadolu Agency/picture alliance

As Chinese authorities clamp down on nationwide protests against strict pandemic control measures, several statements by the official in charge of the zero-COVID policy have signaled a possible change of course.

On Wednesday, Vice Premier Sun Chunlan told health officials that China is "facing a new situation and new tasks" in pandemic prevention and control, according to state media.

The vice premier cited the "decreasing toxicity of the omicron variant, the increasing vaccination rate and the accumulating experience of outbreak control and prevention," as grounds for "optimizing" testing, treatment and quarantine policies.

On Tuesday, officials from China's National Health Commission told a press briefing that, though they did not consider the zero-Covid policy itself to be the cause of protests, they have recognized that a "one-size-fits-all" approach used by local authorities has been a source of public frustration. 

Cheng Youquan, a supervisory official at the Health Commission, said restrictions on high-risk areas "should not be spread wantonly" and added that long-term lockdowns and quarantines have "greatly affected people's daily lives and work" and "caused anxiety and hardships," the state-run China Daily newspaper reported.

"We should rectify or avoid such measures or decisions," Cheng said.

The comments this week by health officials following massive protests offer a more conciliatory tone than Beijing's official rhetoric of sticking to the zero-COVID policy.

A shift in zero-COVID?

Though health officials have been more candid in admitting shortfalls this week, their statements do not amount to an official change in the zero-COVID policy, as no alternative plan has been offered.

China signals shift in COVID response after protests

Steve Tsang, director of the China Institute at the University of London's SOAS, told DW that Chinese authorities are not making changes because of the pressure from the protesters.

"What they are trying to communicate is to deny they are making changes due to the protest," he said. "They refuse to admit that [Chinese leader] Xi Jinping has made a mistake with the zero-COVID policy. It's a political response, and it's not necessarily a well-thought-through response," he added.

Since the start of the pandemic in 2020, China has repeatedly touted its strict strategy of snap lockdowns, quarantines and mass-testing in response to even relatively low infection numbers as a successful model of pandemic prevention.

At the outset of the pandemic, China's strict lockdowns kept infection numbers and deaths lower than in much of the rest of the world. However, almost three years later as other countries have learned to live with COVID, Beijing has made few changes to the original plan.

During the Communist Party conference in October, Xi reiterated that China is committed to "put people and lives first and adhere to dynamic zero-COVID."

Experts say the nationwide protests present the most serious challenge yet to the government's narrative surrounding the zero-COVID strategy. 

Besides everyday disruptions caused by lockdowns and quarantines, the strict measures have been criticized as the fundamental cause of record-high youth unemployment rate and the worsening economy.

"The initial stage of the policy did work, but they didn't change when the rest of the world responded to the rise of omicron," Tsang said.

"They persisted in claiming that their approach was superior and, finally, reality caught up with them, which is that they can't hold out," he added.

"In the end, they may still suffer from a number of deaths, while they are also suffering from a much more prolonged period of lockdown than anybody else, with all the disruption to personal life and economy," he said.

Risks of China opening up

Experts say there are also considerable health risks for China fully opening up, with the efficacy of Chinese vaccines in question, and a low vaccination rate among the elderly population.

A nurse in protective gear prepares a vaccine
Questions have been raised over the efficacy of COVID vaccines used in ChinaImage: Ji Chunpeng/Xinhua News Agency/picture-alliance

"The health consequences might be severe," said Ong from the University of Toronto. "People might feel better if they are free to go about daily work, but infection rates might be creeping up soon and the health system is ill-equipped to cope with the surge in cases."

As part of the adjustment to its zero-COVID strategy, China's National Health Commission vowed to prioritize vaccinating the elderly population, especially people older than 80. Currently, less than 66% of people over 80 in China have received booster shots. However, that number was at 40% last month, indicating some progress.

Public health experts say simply prioritizing an age group for vaccination would not be enough to prevent coronavirus deaths from spiking when China decides to open up completely.

"If they only vaccinate a small number of the population, they can protect that group, but they also leave the rest of the population, who haven't had effective vaccines, to the risk of potentially getting sick," Jason Wang, a public health policy expert at Stanford University, told DW.

"The other issue is that at this point China almost has no natural immunity," he said. "Whatever vaccine-generated immunity they have from the Chinese vaccines, which are not very effective, wanes every month. They need to be boosted but what are they boosted with is the question."

Tsang from SOAS pointed out that the capacity of hospital facilities in China needs to be improved before controls are fully relaxed, or authorities will not be able to cope with a possible increase in the number of cases.

"If people start to die in significant numbers, I don't think you are going to have very happy people in China either," he said. "They have to make sure the vaccination program actually proceeds much more effectively."

Wang thinks that the best way for China is to find the most effective vaccines possible and give every Chinese citizen two shots.

"That will save lives and livelihoods," he said. "If they don't get effective vaccines, even though the virus is causing less-severe disease, people with chronic diseases will still end up in the hospital" he said.

"China already has hospital capacity issues prior to the pandemic, as people already struggle to book doctors' appointments. Partially relaxing right now is to relieve the political pressure. It doesn't get rid of the underlying issues of what to do," he added.

China protests: How deep is public unrest?

Edited by: Wesley Rahn