“API Geoeconomic Briefing” is a weekly analysis of significant geopolitical and geoeconomic developments that precede the post-pandemic world. The briefing is written by experts at Asia Pacific Initiative (API) and includes an assessment of burgeoning trends in international politics and economics and the possible impact on Japan’s national interests and strategic response. (Editor-in-chief: Dr. HOSOYA Yuichi, Research Director, API; Professor, Faculty of Law, Keio University; Visiting Fellow, Downing College, University of Cambridge)
This article was posted to the Japan Times on March 1, 2022:
API Geoeconomic Briefing
March 1, 2022
The Beijing Games — the start of the end of China’s ‘COVID zero’ policy?
Fellow, Asia Pacific Initiative (API)
The 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics and Paralympics kicked off last month while the omicron COVID-19 variant was rampant in China and the rest of the world. China’s “COVID zero” policy, with its strict restrictions on people’s movements, has faced a critical test.
COVID-19 is extremely difficult to contain as it can spread through stealth transmission from those who are asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic. Omicron is a distinctly more infectious strain than previous variants of concerns.
Chinese-made COVID-19 vaccines from makers such as Sinovac and Sinopharm, regarded as key pillars in the country’s strategy to stamp out the virus, have been found to be less effective than mRNA vaccines. This means that they cannot be fully relied upon to protect Chinese citizens’ lives and health.
Moreover, frequent lockdowns risk disrupting global supply chains.
The emergence of the more transmissible omicron variant has led many observers to have doubts about the feasibility of China’s COVID-19 policy.
Although China has implemented strict border controls, the country saw its first community transmission of omicron when infections were detected in Tianjin on Jan. 8 and in Beijing on Jan. 15.
Under such circumstances, China proceeded to host the Olympics and Paralympics, inviting athletes, staff and journalists.
How should we view Beijing’s COVID-19 policy?
China’s restriction of people’s movements within the country, along with the world’s most stringent border control, started with the locking down of Wuhan.
Once an infection was detected, China isolated the individuals concerned and put the entire local community into lockdown, restricting residents’ movements.
The country has also been trying to contain the spread of infections by conducting large-scale PCR testing drives and utilizing digital surveillance technologies, including a health code app and facial recognition technology.
The tough measures, known as the “Wuhan model,” have so far helped to keep the number of new COVID-19 cases at a low level, and have been adopted in a number of areas in China.
Surveillance of residents by neighborhood communities called shequ have also contributed to infection control.
‘COVID zero’ policy
In August, China’s National Health Commission (NHC) adopted its “dynamic zero-infection” policy as its basic strategy to fight COVID-19.
Since then, Chinese authorities and state media have been using terms like “Zero COVID” in public.
One month earlier, however, in July, China had been seeing a rapid spread of infections with the delta variant of COVID-19, with prominent Shanghai virologist Zhang Wenhong suggesting a policy shift toward coexistence with the virus.
The suggestion was met with huge backlash, with some accusing Zhang of pandering to Western countries that had already begun striving to find a way to learn to “live with” COVID-19.
There seem to be three reasons why China started talking of a COVID zero policy.
First, the Wuhan model became China’s standard COVID-19 policy, after the perceived success of the measures taken in the city. Within China’s closed circle of domestic debate, the Wuhan model came to be seen as a success story to be praised and emulated.
This amounted to an “echo chamber effect,” in which people only encounter information or opinions that reflect and reinforce their own, possibly leading to the distortion of their perspectives.
Second, President Xi Jinping’s government sought a buzzword that would be easy to understand, in order to propagate and reinforce the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party and its governance amongst Chinese citizens.
Third, the term was used as a tool to boost China’s international “discourse power” — the ability to set global narratives — an area the Chinese government has paid increasing attention to in expanding its influence overseas.
While the United States, Europe and neighboring countries in Asia, including Japan, have suffered from a series of COVID-19 waves, China has become increasingly confident about infection control.
Beijing has long been dissatisfied by the fact that democracies hold supremacy in shaping international discourse.
In order to turn the tables in a great game over discourse power, Beijing tried to propagate worldwide its narratives about its successful infection control. Such efforts were also seen in its mask and vaccine diplomacy.
However, no matter how much China holds on its COVID zero policy, infections have been reported sporadically in parts of the country.
To fight the virus, vaccinations have been essential in many countries.
In Japan, after then-Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s target of administering 1 million vaccine shots a day was achieved in June, the government managed to speed up the rollout to a maximum of 1.7 million shots a day.
Around the same time, China fiercely advanced the inoculation of its people at a much higher pace, administering between 10 million to 22 million doses a day.
But what had been used in China were domestically-made inactivated vaccines with lower efficacy compared to the mRNA vaccines that are common worldwide.
As of Jan. 14, more than 1.2 billion people — nearly 90% of China’s population — were reported to have received two shots, with more than 300 million people having received a booster shot. But the country still hasn’t been able to stop the spread of infections.
In fact, the National Health Commission has already been shifting its course.
In December, the NHC began arguing that its “dynamic zero-clearance policy” does not mean “zero infections,” adding that while it cannot prevent every single local case, it has the ability and the confidence to quickly curb the virus when a local case is detected.
The recent confusion caused by the lockdowns that followed the spread of infections in Xi’an and the confirmation of omicron cases in Tianjin might lead to a beginning of the end of China’s COVID zero policy.
Xi’an, a city of 13 million people, had been hit by a surge in infections with the delta variant of COVID-19, reporting more than 2,000 new cases in a month, the most serious outbreak to hit China since the first outbreak in Wuhan in January 2020.
On Dec. 23, the city was effectively locked down. Barred from leaving their housing compounds, residents struggled to get food and other necessities.
Then, on Jan. 1, a woman in Xi’an who was reportedly eight months pregnant suffered a miscarriage after being refused entry to hospital. She had allegedly been forced to wait outside in the cold because her COVID-19 test result had expired by about four hours.
The report triggered an outpouring of anger on Chinese social media platforms from Chinese citizens, who criticized authorities over draconian lockdown restrictions.
Liu Shunzhi, director of the city’s health commission, apologized for the loss of the woman’s baby, and several members of staff at the hospital were sacked or suspended. This did little to ease residents’ anger, however.
Moreover, concerns grew worldwide that China’s COVID zero policy was having a negative impact on the global supply chain.
After China’s first omicron cases were detected in Tianjin on Jan. 8, Li Hongzhong, the Communist Party secretary for Tianjin, vowed that the city would “fulfill to the utmost” its role as a “moat” protecting Beijing.
Japanese companies including Toyota Motor Corp. and chipmaker Rohm Co. were forced to temporarily close their factories in Tianjin.
Meanwhile, Xi’an is home to manufacturing bases for some of the world’s largest memory chip makers such as Samsung Electronics Co. and U.S. DRAM chip giant Micron Technology Inc.
Both Samsung Electronics and Micron Technology warned that a lockdown in Xi’an could disrupt their production and supply.
With a battle to secure semiconductors being the most fierce part of the U.S.-China strategic competition over economic security, it is highly likely that Beijing wants to ensure that the negative impact on the chip industry is kept to a minimum.
On Jan. 24, Chinese authorities lifted the lockdown imposed on Xi’an, saying the city has been deemed a low-risk area after the number of new cases declined.
Closed-loop management system
As the Chinese government effectively adjusts its COVID zero policy, the world has been watching to see whether the Beijing Winter Olympics and Paralympics, the latter of which begin on Friday, will lead to an increase in omicron infections in China.
China imposes the world’s tightest border controls. Most of the direct flights to major cities like Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong have been halted, and those traveling from abroad have to take flights to cities such as Dalian or Guangzhou.
Those entering the country must be fully vaccinated at least 14 days prior to entry, present two negative tests — both PCR and antibody tests — taken within 48 hours of travel and apply for a health code online.
Then they must quarantine for 21 days on arrival before finally being able to travel to Beijing on the 23rd day.
Such strict border control rules could not be applied to the Beijing Games athletes and staff. The Olympics playbook says those attending the Games who are vaccinated twice — or three times if possible — are exempt from quarantine.
A “closed-loop” management system has been adopted at the Games, much like the “bubble” system at the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics last summer.
Delegation members have been subject to daily testing just like during the Tokyo Games, but the rules have been even more strict, with all attendants required to be fully vaccinated in principle and only allowed to move between permitted destinations in dedicated Olympics transport. Movement restrictions within the athletes village have also been extremely severe.
The Tokyo Games arguably served as a model for the Beijing Games organizers’ anti-COVID measures. This is because the bubble system for the Tokyo Games worked.
Athletes and related personnel at the Tokyo Games were encouraged to be vaccinated, required to present two negative test results taken before departure and had regular screening tests during the Games.
While there had been concerns that the Tokyo Games could be a superspreader event, the bubble system proved effective in hindsight.
According to the Tokyo Games’ organizers, 261 people out of 54,250 who entered Japan for the Games — only 0.48% — tested positive, and the spread of infections was prevented by quarantine and isolation measures by public health care centers.
They confirmed that there had been no cases of community infections caused by people related to the Games.
Meanwhile, the organizers of the Games in Beijing have been struggling with the more contagious omicron variant.
As of Feb. 20, the day of the Olympics closing ceremony, 437 athletes and related personnel had tested positive at quarantine or in daily testing.
Chinese authorities have been frantically working to manage the closed-loop system to ensure that the Beijing Games will not lead to the spread of omicron infections in China.
Two echo chambers
Looking at how China is dealing with the pandemic, it seems that both the Chinese authorities and people became overconfident about the capabilities of the Wuhan model, due to the echo chamber created by the closed opinion-building in the country.
The Chinese government has been promoting its COVID zero policy worldwide to increase its discourse power.
In such a situation, what China has aimed for during the Beijing Games is not zero infections, but a dynamic response to control infections.
China, which has been adhering to its signature COVID zero approach, is already making a policy shift, effectively turning toward learning to live with the virus.
However, many policymakers and media in Western countries and Japan still appear to take the policy word for word, focusing on its negative side and trying to predict how it will fail.
It might be possible that our way of seeing China’s COVID-19 response is also being amplified in a closed echo chamber of our own.
With the Communist Party National Congress set to take place in the fall, Xi’s regime will maintain its strict COVID-19 measures.
It is, however, likely that the measures and rhetoric it uses will be modified over time, as it has been stressing that its “dynamic” COVID zero policy remains effective in controlling the virus.
In order to avoid being misled by China’s global influence campaigns and be levelheaded in analyzing the country’s situation, it is important to examine their COVID-19 measures as they are and scrutinize them carefully.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this API Geoeconomic Briefing do not necessarily reflect those of the API, the API Institute of Geoeconomic Studies or any other organizations to which the author belongs