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Decoding China’s COVID-19 Policy U-Turn

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Decoding China’s COVID-19 Policy U-Turn

Current discussions often highlight the role of the vocal protests in late November in shifting China’s COVID zero policy. But the shift had already begun in early November. 

Decoding China’s COVID-19 Policy U-Turn
Credit: Depositphotos

On November 30, several districts in the southern hub metropolis Guangzhou took the lead in lifting a large number of COVID-19-related lockdowns, as well as suspending testing requirements. This was followed shortly by similar measures in Shanghai, Beijing, and other leading cities in the country. It had – by then – become increasingly clear that the Chinese administration was shifting away from a “zero-tolerance” approach to COVID-19, toward an approach where home isolation, paired with triaging and prioritizing severe cases by clinics and hospitals (where public healthcare infrastructure would permit), would be the new norm.  

The reopening campaign gained further traction in early December. On December 7, China declared a nation-wide loosening of COVID-19 restrictions, significantly cutting down the frequency and scope of mandatory PCR testing, emphasizing that lockdowns would now be a measure of last resort, and suspending – for once and for all – the highly sophisticated health code for a vast range of districts and spaces. Attempts were made to actively allay public worries concerning the rapid spread of the virus: A recent public statement from China’s top medical adviser, Zhong Nanshan, suggested that Omicron’s death rates – at present – were comparable to those of the flu. 

Diagnosing the Policy U-Turn: The Push-Pull-Feasibility Trifecta

China’s zero-COVID policy had served the country well relatively well in the first 18 months of the COVID-19 pandemic. Hyper-stringent isolation and quarantine measures, paired with radical curtailing of entry into the country, had left the 1.4-billion population largely immune from the substantial casualties and ensuing socioeconomic disruptions that had taken to the rest of the world. 

That is, until the arrival of the highly contagious Omicron variant, coupled with inevitable slippages in the country’s wall of defense, triggered a cascade of infections. In face of this, local and provincial administrations – in adherence to official party doctrine concerning “zero COVID” – turned to lockdowns and mass testing campaigns as desperate measures in tackling the rising cases. Despite precipitously growing discontent from the masses, substantial supply chain disruptions, and broader economic woes given the large-scale, exhaustively enforced lockdowns, the government had adamantly maintained the policy, and had long sought to frame the policy as testament to China’s “superior” model of governance, contra the West’s.

Current discussions often highlight the role of the vocal protests in the country in late November, which President Xi Jinping himself attributed to the angst of “frustrated students” reacting to the interruptive effects imposed by the public health policies pursued by district and municipal authorities. 

Some of these protests drew tactfully upon what Kevin O’Brien and Lianjiang Li term “rightful resistance”– playing to recurring tropes in official discourse, such as the allegation that local officials had failed to ensure that their anti-pandemic measures were “precise and measured,” or the beckoning for municipal and provincial governments to implement fully the will of the central administration. The central administration has conventionally leaned heavily into such discourses in granting itself a form of plausible deniability – the official line to take was that the problems of zero COVID were due to poor execution, as opposed to poor conceptualization. 

Yet to attribute the reopening efforts to these protests would miss a rather important fact – that China’s rollback to the restrictive measures had begun in early November. 

On November 7, the Chinese National Health Commission (NHC) declared, through a 10-point announcement, that regular negative COVID-19 tests would no longer be mandatory for low- to mid-risk areas (high-risk areas include nurseries, elderly care facilities, and schools). 

On November 11, the NHC further unveiled 20 key “guidelines” for easing COVID zero, rolling back some of its strictest COVID-19 restrictions, shortening quarantines for close contacts and inbound travelers by two days, as well as lifting the ban on flights exceeding the threshold of acceptable cases. 

On November 19, the NHC released further documents concerning pandemic prevention and control measures, with clear instructions on home isolation and medical observation, and how fine-graining and specifying COVID-19 risk areas was possible. 

As such, the relaxation should not be viewed as a direct consequence of the large-scale civilian-led protests in late November. At most, these protests amplified pre-existing trends, but the causes for the progressive unravelling of the measures should be traced elsewhere. 

A more salient explanation requires us to consider three key variables weighing in on the party leadership’s calculus. The first constitutes the conclusion of the 20th Party Congress, where Xi formally secured his third term as party secretary. The priorities of the leadership in the run-up to the Party Congress were likely geared toward preserving maximal stability and reducing the room for opposition or criticism to be levied toward the incumbent administration. Given the sluggish economic growth rates and incipiently worsening relations between China and key trading partners in the U.S. and the EU, the Chinese leadership had preferred to avoid any and all political fallout incurred by the excess deaths that would have been spurred by a premature easing of COVID-19 measures. With the leadership line-up confirmed in late October, there was thus a greater margin for maneuver and greater policy risk, even in terms of COVID-19. Let us term these considerations “pull factors.”

The second variable constitutes the set of “push factors” – namely, the significant costs confronting the Chinese economy, civil society, and administration at large, caused by the imposed public health measures. The Chinese economic growth rate year on year in the second quarter of 2022 was 0..4 percent — the lowest in two years. Mass lockdowns have forced the closure of factories and retail businesses, disrupting supply and logistical chains – leading to both shrinking supply and demand. Youth unemployment, while by no means caused by purely the toll caused to labor-intensive service and e-commerce sectors, has climbed to nearly 20 percent. For many among the party’s upper echelons, on the contrary to accounts that suggest blatant ignorance, the simmering resentment toward the repetitive and draconian nature of the public health measures indeed came across as a harbinger of worse political turbulence to come. 

The final variable pertained to the feasibility, that is the logistical obstacles and transitory costs, both direct and spill-over, that would be encountered in the process of opening up. Per recent reports, in early November experts in Hong Kong were flown into Beijing for their assessments of the feasibility of a full reopening of the country. Independently, the average number of vaccine doses per person in China had risen to 2.42 by December 2022, with full vaccination rate at 89.27 percent. Setting aside particular qualms concerning vaccine efficacy, it was clear that a full reopening at this stage would be – while still fundamentally costly in terms of the potential casualties inflicted – by no means impracticable. Such “feasibility factors” played a critical role in disarming the arguments of those who had been more conservative and reticent about China’s pace in easing public health measures.

It was hence this trifecta of push-pull-feasibility factors that had culminated at leadership deliberations in late October and early November concluding in favor of a directional shift in China’s COVID-19 approach. 

Making Sense of the Rapidity of Opening

Yet here, a further question may thus arise: What could explain the velocity at which the reopening is occurring? Even if the three variables above point to a case for reopening, it remains unclear as to why it should occur at the current, highly accelerated, and hitherto unrestrained pace (though this may soon change). 

Officials are already warning of rapid spread and a massive outbreak in COVID-19 infections over the coming two months. Significant infections are being reported – anecdotally – across major cities such as Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Shenzhen. The drastic cutbacks to measures in late November and early December have taken many academics and commentators by surprise, as they struggle to comprehend the pace by which governmental policies have shifted. 

As I see it, the pacing question can be answered through what I term an “over-compensation/amplification” model that undergirds the highly complex dynamics of Chinese policymaking in this context. In the Chinese state, senior bureaucrats are often tasked with issuing overarching guiding and theoretical principles that do not engage with particular details – it is the task of provincial and local officials to render these principles “implemented and adhered-to” in practice.

Yet in the wake of the leadership’s blatant pivot away from “dynamic zero,” senior bureaucrats and technocrats tasked with crafting the nascent reopening policy needed to make their point particularly emphatically, especially given the vast inertia and deference to “zero COVID” that has accrued over the past two years. There was thus an urge to over-compensate on the part of steering bureaucrats at the vice ministerial/ministerial level in the State Council (including the NHC) in order to articulate the message unmistakably: China was to open up in full, within a limited period of time. 

Party cadres at the provincial and municipal level in turn responded most swiftly – partly out of careerist considerations, where they feared “losing out” to potential rivals in demonstrating fealty and ability to comply with the party line; but also partly in seeking the least politically risky and costly path of juggling competing demands. Many front-line officials thus turn to embracing in full the most viscerally and visibly issued party directives.

These junior to mid-ranking officials’ efficiency and capacity to see through top-down prerogatives should not be underestimated. With their sizeable mobilization prowess, extensive contacts and access to community leaders, and significant concentration of resources, local administrations thus rapidly dismantled the gigantic testing-lockdown-quarantine apparatus that had been built up over nearly three years. Thus it was on more junior and mid-ranking levels that the amplificatory effects played out. 

The upshot is clear – as with the initial lockdowns, which were highly effectively and efficiently carried out in February and March 2020, the Chinese government had drawn upon a very well-oiled bureaucracy in seeing through policy decisions that would, in other countries, take far longer to implement. Yet in so doing, this had also created a non-trivial volume of policy confusion, specifically in instances where the need to preserve lives and prevent overstretched hospital capacities came into conflict with the prerogative of reopening, as in Shandong

Moderation and Adjustments to Reopening Pace are to be Expected

It is clear that COVID-19 is significantly less lethal than it was at the start of the pandemic; that the Chinese public health system is – on balance – more equipped than it was three years ago to tackle the onslaught of cases, and that immunity, through vaccination (or prior infection, for some), has equipped the Chinese population with greater resilience against the virus.

With that said, at the current pace of “unbridled” opening, it is likely that a significant wave of infections will overtake China within the next two to three weeks. Two critical “forking” questions thus emerge. The first is whether the central administration in Beijing should permit, and by how substantial a margin, variations in public health measures across different provinces and localities; the second is whether provincial and local governments would opt to reinstate at least some of the waived measures in order to bring the total number of cases down to a more manageable level. 

The answers to both questions remain to be conclusively established, though I would posit that the likeliest trajectory one is where Beijing allows for a certain level of devolved discretion – with stipulated guidelines – among regional governments, who are in turn tasked with deciding if they must moderate the pace of reopening. For provinces and cities with adequate medical supplies and relatively young populations (such as Shenzhen, with an average age of 32.5), deceleration in reopening may well be unnecessary. For provinces and cities that are neither young nor adequately stocked, governments may request permission from the State Council for moderation to the reopening pace, with partial reinstatement of some (albeit limited) social distancing and isolation requirements.  

There are two reasons to think that such moderation is likely. First, substantial pressures upon hospitals could well bring the public healthcare system to its knees in certain regions, especially with resource and manpower bottlenecks. Second, the Chinese Communist Party has shown that it does take public opinion and mass sentiments seriously – runaway infection rates would not be conducive toward overarching political stability. In the event where moderation (or partial restriction) is no longer feasible, mass mobilization efforts for medical supplies and resources may well be undertaken. Either way, the upcoming four to six weeks would prove to be a difficult period for the country.