China’s Zero-COVID U-Turn Lands the Country in Chaos: “Damned If You Do, Damned If You Don’t!”


For almost three years since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic in early 2020, the international media consistently decried China’s zero-COVID strategy as “punishing” and “too stringent.” Now, as the CCP has begun abandoning the strict public health measures, the global mainstream press is filled with alarm bells that the CCP embracing the “forever COVID” policy will end up into “a tragedy of monumental proportions.”     

Since Chinese authorities have stopped releasing pandemic-related official data, Beijing-based Chinese language news portals have estimated 500 million Chinese people are already infected with COVID-19 through December 25. The monumental scale of the COVID-19 tragedy unfolding across China is the result of the irrational, unscientific, unplanned abandoning of the Zero-COVID policy by the CCP. Earlier reports claim a ground report presented by Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention Deputy Director Sun Yang at a closed-door health briefing on December 21 stated that roughly 250 million people – 18 percent of China’s 1.4 billion people – were infected with COVID-19 across China within just the first 20 days of December.  

Zero-COVID is Lifted, But Covid-19 Trauma Lingers On

According to a University of Massachusetts professor of physiology, the total number of COVID deaths in China prior to the current post-lifting virus outbreak was only 3.7 deaths per million as compared to 3042 deaths in the US. “Had China followed the same course as the US, it would have experienced at least 4 million deaths. Or, had the US followed China’s course it would have had only 1306 total deaths,” Professor John Walsh observed.  

No doubt China’s strict pandemic measures have caused significant inconvenience to ordinary Chinese people. Some critics point out, more than the virus, nearly everyone in China had never-ending grouses about the notorious “Beijing Health Kit” (健康宝) app. According to a recent report in the Singapore-based Mandarin media, Lianhe Zaobao, “Born of the pandemic, the app is like a set of shackles on each person. It records the health information of everyone residing in Beijing, including even people’s movements. In Beijing, one needs to scan and register on this app to ride a cab or enter a public place.” (Emphasis given)

Citing a Beijing resident, the report noted, people believe that besides being a mysterious app that often sends pop-up notifications of being in contact with a “high-risk area, location or person,” the Beijing Health Kit app has an uncanny mind-reading ability: “every time you think about traveling to Beijing, the pop-up appears!” But jokes apart, with the zero-COVID policy gone, Chinese people might have got rid of the shackles of the health kit, they might not be subjected to 24X7 surveillance and vigilance, or once every three days mandatory RT-PCR test might no longer be in place, but the Covid-19 trauma lingers on. In the words of Eva Rammeloo, a Dutch journalist based in Beijing, “After making great sacrifices to suppress the virus, China’s people must now face it head-on.”  

Why did the CCP Lift Zero-COVID Policy?

In early November this year – ten days after the 20th CCP Congress concluded on October 22, the ruling Communist Party began its clear shift away from its longstanding “dynamic clearing” policy (清零Qingling in Chinese), better known as Zero-COVID in the English-speaking world. Though reported as “anti-people” in the global press, China’s “go alone” anti-virus strategy did succeed in preventing the mass transmission of coronavirus for nearly three years. Intriguingly, by the time the Chinese authorities announced the lifting of stringent Covid-19 measures on November 14, the daily average of new cases had risen tenfold, jumping from 950 on October 23 to nearly 11,000.  

In spite of the Omicron variant resurgence first in Shanghai (April – June) and then in Guangzhou in the first week of November, Chinese President Xi Jinping decided to go ahead to convene his new CCP political bureau standing committee (apparently to announce the lifting of the pandemic restrictions) on the specific agenda on Covid-19. The next day, the announcement made by China’s National Health Commission (NHC) of “20 Measures” to ease Covid-19 stringent policy left no one in doubt the source of the origin of the new mandate was the political bureau meeting the previous day. The “20 Measures” were clearly aimed at “either curtailing various aspects of the zero-COVID policy or indicate preparations for a surge of the virus.”

Following the approval of “20 Measures” by the CCP political bureau standing committee, the next day, on November 11, the Chinese State Council’s Joint Prevention and Control Mechanism (JPCM) issued the new guidelines to lift COVID restrictions without further delay. What surprised everyone and far exceeded anyone’s expectations was the speed and intensity with which JPCM further announced “New Ten Measures” on December 7. Looking back, many in China are now calling the extreme liberalization untimely and irrational.   

Three Factors Said to Have Prompted the Rapid Lifting of Zero-COVID

Three major factors are believed to be behind the CCP’s sudden move to abandon the Zero-COVID policy in favor of embracing the “forever COVID” policy.

First, the direct pressure of major corporations such as Nike and Apple, which in November threatened to move their businesses elsewhere if supply chain and labor-related shortages continued. Recall a meeting on December 8 convened by Premier Li Keqiang – the seventh “1+6” Roundtable in Huangshan City, Anhui Province – attended by the leading world business representatives including the heads of the World Bank (WB) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). At the meeting, Li Keqiang pledged that China was reopening for business and will no longer impose lockdowns or other public health measures to stop the spread of COVID-19. 

Second, the CCP’s move to first gradually ease the stringent Zero-COVID measures followed by fully abandoning mass testing, lockdowns, and the repeated incursions of new variants incubated outside China was seen by the leadership as the only way to avoid an immense drain on the resources of the state. (Emphasis given). This realization on the part of the Chinese authorities was perfectly in line with what the world had been demanding over the past two years that the People’s Republic of China “accept mass infection in order to preserve the global corporate and financial interests.” Additionally, the Chinese leadership had been continuously subjected to mounting pressure from global businesses to move production elsewhere and not tolerate any further disruptions to production within China.

Third, as mentioned, even before the CCP 20th party congress, the Chinese leadership had started calibrating the increasing costs of the Zero-COVID policy on China’s economy. According to reports, as soon as the 20th CCP National Congress was over, the party leadership desperately looked for an opportune time to open up the country in order to restore full-scale production and scrap all COVID-19 safety protocols. “China just reported its November trade data, revealing the worst monthly figures in two-and-a-half years – a result of the ‘harsh toll’ the zero-COVID policy has taken on the economy this year,” the South China Morning Post declared in a report on December 7.     

To sum up, contrary to the claims in the section of the global media praising the protests across China and demanding the Chinese government to lift the “onerous Covid-19 restrictions,” the international press lamented China’s botched Covid reopening. “The current rushed and poorly coordinated transition from ‘zero Covid’ towards living with the virus is undermining China’s own claims to put people first,” the Financial Times questioned China’s governance ability in an editorial on December 19. On the other hand, regardless of the justification put forward by the Global Times for embracing the “forever Covid” policy, the truth is factories and businesses are deserted in Beijing and other major cities in China as a result of both mass infection and fear.

Many experts and critics have pointed out that in China, it is not the Chinese population that demanded that Zero-COVID measures be lifted. Arguably, just as the implementation of the “dynamic zero” strategy for the past more than two-and-a-half years was viewed by some as one extreme, the sudden U-turn of the lifting of the zero-COVID is also being criticized as another extreme. No wonder China has been described as the land of extremes. But the opening up of one-sixth of the world’s population to infection is giving the coronavirus a new lease of life, allowing it to mutate and evolve into even more dangerous variants that will ricochet throughout the globe. Thus the cost of the blunder the CCP has caused by lifting all COVID restrictions is certainly going to be far bigger than the cost the Chinese people paid for the Zero-COVID policy.

Hemant Adlakha
Hemant Adlakha
Hemant Adlakha is professor of Chinese, Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. He is also vice chairperson and an Honorary Fellow, Institute of Chinese Studies (ICS), Delhi.


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