By Bumjoon Park
Most countries are now adopting the “living with COVID-19” approach in tackling the COVID-19 pandemic in order to allow unimpeded socio-economic activities. However, China has insisted on holding onto its Zero-COVID policy. This will likely continue in China until a sufficiently large and more effective vaccination campaign is implemented, since prematurely transitioning away could have negative implications for authorities. Yet the uncompromising pursuit of Zero-COVID has already had negative implications for authorities.
What is Zero-COVID?
Several countries adopted various forms of Zero-COVID since the beginning of the pandemic, but the term has now become synonymous with China’s COVID-19 response. “Zero-COVID” or “COVID-Zero” is a term used to describe the more stringent approaches employed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. In contrast to the “living with COVID-19” approach, which forgoes movement restrictions and other stringent measures while COVID-19-related severe cases and deaths remain under a certain level, Zero-COVID responds to any COVID-19 outbreaks with strict restrictions until the virus is no longer spreading.
China’s continued Zero-COVID
Chinese government and Communist Party authorities indicated that they will continue to employ their Zero-COVID policy for the foreseeable future. Their official reasoning is to place people’s lives above anything else, but speculations abound as to what are the true reasons behind maintaining Zero-COVID. Some argue that there are genuine reasons unique to China’s circumstances that prevent authorities from dropping Zero-COVID. This includes the argument that the country’s medical infrastructure is incapable of adequately serving its large and densely clustered population, which is conducive to the rapid spread of COVID-19; especially as most of the population is either inoculated with less effective domestic-made vaccines or still unvaccinated.
More than half of the Chinese population has obtained at least one booster shot, comparable to other advanced industrial nations’ booster rates — US and Canada: 50%, Germany and Taiwan: 55%, France and Japan: 60%, South Korea and Italy: 65%, UK and Australia: 70%. However, the vaccination rate is much lower for the most-vulnerable Chinese demographic, the elderly, with fewer than two-thirds considered fully vaccinated and even fewer having obtained boosters. Until vaccine effectiveness and availability improve, Chinese authorities have assessed that it is less damaging to repeatedly impose lockdowns than to risk the strain on the healthcare system and the fearful prospect of further viral mutations from widespread transmission.
China’s insistence on Zero-COVID can be understood as a necessity for perpetuating the narrative of competent governance. Authorities actively implementing restrictions to prevent and curb the spread of COVID-19 maintains the appearance of the state working to keep the populace safe. At the same time, it allows public officials to deflect criticisms regarding any deterioration in living conditions by justifying any strict restriction as necessary for public health. The tacitly acknowledged social contract between the Chinese state and its people is that the people will largely tolerate single-party authoritarian rule as long as the state provides security and improvements in living conditions.
Like other countries, China can import the more effective foreign mRNA vaccines and antiviral pills as well as expand its medical capacity for transitioning to a “living with COVID-19” approach. However, doing so risks attributing any new spikes in case numbers and deaths to the policy transition, not to mention the Chinese state appearing incapable of resolving public health issues through its own indigenous capabilities as these vaccines and antiviral medicines are the product of unprecedented international scientific cooperation.
To avoid the repeat of another Shanghai-like citywide lockdown, central authorities have harmonised disparate local COVID-19 policies, directing local officials to more proactively impose localised lockdowns and movement restrictions before case numbers get out of hand. Mechanisms to allow movement among non-outbreak regions and easing of international travel restrictions were also implemented but strict controls can always be reinstated whenever new cases are detected. Initially, local governments had a wide discretion regarding the imposition of specific restrictions such as lockdown and movement restrictions.
This approach was tweaked following the lockdown of Shanghai from late March to early June. Previous lockdowns were mostly localised to affected residential areas and the comparable 2020 lockdown of Wuhan was understandable as the first instance of a COVID-19 outbreak, but the Shanghai lockdown was exceptional in its scope as well as length and prompted rare public protests. It has also not helped that concurrent with the lockdowns, China is experiencing an unprecedented summer drought that has exacerbated existing socio-economic disruptions.
Impact of Zero-COVID and future prospects
The uncertainty of possible lockdowns and movement restrictions that can last for weeks poses a significant risk for prospective travellers and business operations. Moreover, those caught under a lockdown face potential problems regarding access to food supply and medical attention as well as mental health issues. While the management of these issues have improved since the Shanghai lockdown, these problems have not gone away, with viral videos showing people fleeing in panic upon the announcement of localised lockdowns. Considering the authorities’ imperative for conveying themselves as competent administrators, China’s Zero-COVID approach is expected to stay until a transition away from the approach becomes necessary for maintaining such an image.
One possible situation for a face-saving transition is when the number of COVID-19 related deaths drastically drops and stabilises in many developed countries. Chinese officials often cite the relatively high number of COVID-19 related deaths in such countries as justification for its Zero-COVID policy. China has also widely distributed its domestically-manufactured vaccines to developing countries for soft power purposes; a sudden reversal of the Zero-COVID policy would have knock-on diplomatic effects as well. Continuing to impose strict restrictions despite the lack thereof in other countries with comparable deaths, amid suspicions of Chinese officials underreporting deaths, would present China’s Zero-COVID as a clear shortcoming in governance.
Considering Chinese authorities’ imperative for conveying themselves as competent administrators, China’s Zero-COVID approach is expected to stay until a transition away from the approach becomes necessary for maintaining such an image. In the meantime, the uncertainty of possible lockdowns and movement restrictions that can last for weeks poses a significant risk for prospective travellers and business operations.
Bumjoon Park is a Japan-based political and security risk analyst covering East Asia.