No way out in sight for China’s zero-COVID strategy
William Yang Taipei
19th October 2022
Beijing appears unfazed by the economic and social challenges emerging from its hard line on stopping the spread of COVID-19. But experts warn human rights are taking a back seat
For almost three years, China has been implementing one of the strictest pandemic control policies in the world, shutting down borders, imposing lockdowns across the country and conducting mass-scale COVID-19 tests to try and contain the spread of coronavirus. Millions of Chinese residents have been wondering whether authorities may begin to ease these stringent measures, but the latest signal from the Chinese leader has dashed that hope.
- On Sunday, Chinese President Xi Jinping lauded the success of the zero-COVID strategy, arguing that the policy has saved lives while saying China has launched an “all-out people’s war to stop the spread of the virus.” His message comes amid reinforced calls from Chinese state media for Beijing to persist with its COVID-19 policies.
Experts largely agree that China seems to have no plan to end the zero-COVID strategy anytime soon, nor is it prepared to pivot away from the strategy. “China lacks effective vaccines and treatment options, has a dangerously low vaccination rate for older populations, and a highly stressed health care system,” said Xi Chen, an associate professor of health policy and economics at the Yale School of Public Health.
Chen told DW that with the huge immunity gap, ending the zero-COVID policy would lead to an “imminent public health crisis” in China, possibly resulting in a large volume of hospitalizations and deaths in a short period of time.
China’s COVID policy hurting its economy
China struggles with vaccinations
According to China’s state-run media outlet China Daily, less than 86% of its elderly population has been fully vaccinated, and only around 68% has received booster shots. A study from the University of Hong Kong in March found that people over 60 who had received two doses of China’s Sinovac vaccine were three times more likely to die from a coronavirus infection than those who had received two doses of the BioNTech-Pfizer vaccine.
In recent weeks, several Chinese pharmaceutical companies have begun to build factories aimed at manufacturing mRNA vaccines, according to media reports. However, the development of China’s own mRNA vaccines has been slow. Although the mRNA vaccine from Chinese vaccine manufacturer Abogen Biosciences has been granted emergency use approval in Indonesia, details of any possible rollout in China remain unknown.
Some experts say the reason for China’s sluggish progress with its pandemic control measures is that it has no effective vaccine against the highly contagious omicron variant, and the overall infection rate among its population is too low. “Since around 50% to 80% of the population have been infected with coronavirus, some countries have begun to lift some pandemic control measures since the spring,” said Chunhuei Chi, director of the Center for Global Health at Oregon State University.
“China is now caught in an awkward position. The infection rate among the Chinese population is too low and they don’t have an effective vaccine,” he told DW.
People tiring of lockdowns and testing
Chinese authorities have continued to publicly defend the zero-COVID strategy, as millions of Chinese citizens are still living under some form of lockdown. On Monday, around 1 million residents in the Chinese city of Zhengzhou were ordered to stay home, as authorities tried to stamp out new cases. Businesses were ordered to shut down, while citizens must undergo mandatory PCR tests.
Lin, a resident of Zhongshan, an industrial city in China’s Guangdong province, told DW that they have also been asked to stay home for three days after new local cases were reported. He asked to be identified only by his last name due to security concerns. Last week, Chinese media reported that a county in China’s Jiangsu province ordered more than 1 million residents to stay home for three days after one PCR test came back abnormal.
China’s zero COVID policy fatiguing people
Zhang Hai, a Chinese citizen living in the industrial hub of Shenzhen, told DW that repeated lockdowns in the city and throughout China have seriously affected Chinese citizens’ everyday lives. “The lockdowns have no impact on government officials who hand down these orders,” he said. “All industries are experiencing a slump almost three years after coronavirus first emerged in Wuhan.
“Local authorities are still keeping in line with the central government’s zero-COVID measures and in some places, they even elevate it to the next level. Many Chinese citizens are disgusted by constant and unexpected lockdowns. When I hear the word ‘PCR test,’ it just makes me really angry,” he added.
Chen from the Yale School of Public Health told DW he is puzzled by China’s maintenance of large-scale PCR testing and its lockdown strategies. “They don’t do much to solve the longer-term problem,” he said. “More sustainable ways, such as raising vaccination rates by implementing vaccine passports or securing more effective vaccines, which have been adopted by other countries, are ignored.”
Growing human rights concerns
Amid the constant lockdowns across China over the last two years, numerous cases of alleged human rights violations have been reported. Last month, residents of Ghulja in China’s Xinjiang Autonomous Region were put under lockdown for more than 40 days, causing many of them to call for help on social media platforms due to the severe lack of food and basic supplies.
And in China’s commercial capital, Shanghai, a city of around 25 million people, residents were forced into a two-month lockdown that saw many seeking various outlets to express their anger amid heavy censorship.
Yaqiu Wang, the senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch, told DW that with China’s strict censorship regime it is very difficult for the outside world to get a sense of the extent of human rights violations under Beijing’s zero-COVID strategy.
“Even when there are strict censorship and self-censorship, we still find tragic stories caused by China’s zero-COVID strategy online,” she said. “The Chinese government continues to overlook human rights issues arising from the current situation, ignore experts’ opinions and refuse to listen to Chinese people’s calls for help. This is autocracy,” she said.
China’s zero-Covid strategy
Wang said the Chinese government cares about political stability, with people’s lives and rights being given secondary importance. With the existing infrastructure, Wang thinks the COVID-19 pandemic has given Beijing an opportunity to develop its apparatus of control.
“China’s health code is an example. Since China already has a surveillance infrastructure, they were able to implement this specific surveillance mechanism,” she told DW.
And with the zero-COVID strategy already causing an economic slowdown, as well as other economic and social problems, Chen from the Yale School of Public Health thinks it will be difficult for Beijing to prevent further damage while maintaining its strict policies.
“I have no doubt that Chinese policymakers are trying to balance public health and the economy, but my worry is that under the zero-COVID policy and worsening economic slowdown, maintaining social stability could be prioritized in the agenda, which may prolong zero-COVID while hurting the economy,” he said. “This would create a vicious cycle.”
Edited by: Alex Berry