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HomeNewsZero-Covid: China’s rigid strategy presents political danger for President Xi

Zero-Covid: China’s rigid strategy presents political danger for President Xi


China began adopting its resolute zero-Covid strategy shortly after the initial outbreak of coronavirus in Wuhan back in late 2019. The cast-iron policy — which Mr Xi has repeatedly said is the only acceptable approach — has seen single Covid cases result in suburb-scale lockdowns and, in one case last month, even the full passenger complement of a high-speed train shipped off to an isolation centre. The strategy has largely been successful, with mainland China seeing only 3 deaths per million people compared with 2,400 per million in the UK and 3,000 per million in the US.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), however, this strategy may not be sustainable when it comes to handling the Omicron variant, which is more transmissible than its predecessors.

During a press conference in May, WHO Director General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesu said: “As we all know, the virus is evolving, changing its behaviour.

“When we talk about the zero-Covid strategy, we don’t think that it is sustainable, considering the behaviour of the virus now and what we anticipate in the future.

“We have discussed this issue with Chinese experts […] I think a shift would be very important.”

Beijing, however, has shown no signs of relenting on its zero-Covid approach, with Mr Xi continuing to assert that the policy is both “scientific and effective”.

Two explanations have been put forward to explain China’s rigidity around zero-Covid.

The first relates to China’s vaccination rates, which are regarded as still being too low for the country to safely reopen without leading to additional deaths and the risk of overwhelming the nation’s hospitals.

Chinese epidemiologist Professor Liang Wannian of the National Health Commission said back in March that “some vulnerable groups haven’t been fully vaccinated with two doses or boosted shots, so we can’t just give in”.

According to official data, 89 percent of Chinese residents have had two vaccinations, but only 56 percent of those eligible for a booster have been given one — including a paltry 19.7 percent of those aged 80 years and over.

The problem seems to have been that Beijing’s prior success at keeping Covid under control with their aggressive lockdown strategy has made vaccinations seem less pressing,

Meanwhile, officials have painted Covid as an overseas problem brought into the country by travellers from elsewhere in the world.

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Two explanations have been put forward to explain China’s rigidity around zero-Covid.

The first relates to China’s vaccination rates, which are regarded as still being too low for the country to safely reopen without leading to additional deaths and the risk of overwhelming the nation’s hospitals.

Chinese epidemiologist Professor Liang Wannian of the National Health Commission said back in March that “some vulnerable groups haven’t been fully vaccinated with two doses or boosted shots, so we can’t just give in”.

According to official data, 89 percent of Chinese residents have had two vaccinations, but only 56 percent of those eligible for a booster have been given one — including a paltry 19.7 percent of those aged 80 years and over.

The problem seems to have been that Beijing’s prior success at keeping Covid under control with their aggressive lockdown strategy has made vaccinations seem less pressing,

Meanwhile, officials have painted Covid as an overseas problem brought into the country by travellers from elsewhere in the world.

According to BBC News, sources in China have said that doctors have been emphasising the risks associated with vaccination to those with underlying conditions — rather than stressing the dangers posed by coronavirus to the unvaccinated.

One 85 year-old-woman in Beijing, who had just received a jab that day, told the BBC that she was “not worried about Covid. Just be careful, wear a mask.”

Another person said: “Covid management in Beijing is good. Beijing people, the Chinese people, listen to the Government.

“Unlike people overseas, when asked to stay at home, we just stay at home.”

In the last week, Beijing’s city officials did flirt with incentivising shots by insisting that proof of vaccination would be needed to enter such entertainment venues as cinemas, gyms and museums.

However, this policy was walked back within days.

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The other problem, meanwhile, is more political than practical — with officials in Beijing having invested heavily in the zero-Covid stance and ridiculed other nations for opening up.

It is also politically difficult for President Xi to change course on his coronavirus stratagem until after the National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party in November.

The occasion will see Mr Xi’s third term ushered in, marking a departure from the two-term policy introduced by former president Deng Xiaoping in the eighties in an effort to spare China from a return to a lengthy dictatorship as seen under Chairman Mao Zedong.

However, while Mr Xi and his allies may wish to avoid shaking things up — or appearing to have been following the wrong approach — it also seems clear that the Chinese people are growing increasingly frustrated with the disruptive measures of the zero-Covid approach.

Criticism of Beijing’s handling of the pandemic is reportedly growing more common in China, while last week’s (rapidly withdrawn) suggestion that zero-Covid policies would remain in force for another five years was met with significant backlash on social media.

Whether Mr Xi can avoid damaging wider social unrest until the congress in November, however, remains to be seen.



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