In mid-May, I traveled from London to Slovenia to interview the Ukrainian men’s soccer team on their bid to reach November’s Qatar World Cup. It was a four-day assignment, requiring travel via train stations, airports, and taxi ranks—but at no point was I asked to show a negative COVID-19 test, my vaccination status, nor even to wear a facemask. I can barely recall seeing anyone wear one, least of all the elite sportsmen with whom I mingled daily. It was equally refreshing and disconcerting—as if Europe had forgotten that the pandemic had ever happened and was indeed still happening.
It was on this trip that a news alert flashed on my phone: China, on May 14, announced it was withdrawing from hosting the Asian Football Confederation Cup—the continent’s premier international soccer tournament—due to a COVID-19 outbreak that, on that same day, was responsible for only 65,000 cases and 45 deaths nationwide. That China is still wedded to a stringent zero-COVID policy focused on stamping out every infection, rather than mitigating severe illness and deaths, wasn’t a secret to anyone following the harsh lockdown endured by the 26 million residents of Shanghai, its biggest city, over the last two months. Still, it was surprising because Beijing, not too long ago, hosted the 2022 Winter Olympics without seeding a major outbreak and China’s leadership relishes in the prestige that accompanies these major sporting events. But what caught my eye most was the timing: the nixed tournament didn’t kick off until June 2023.
What it suggests is that China has no intention of following the West into a vaccine-powered “living with the virus” dynamic. That’s bad news for China’s own economy and for any diminishing hopes worldwide of avoiding a global recession. Over the last two decades, China has contributed a quarter of the rise in global GDP—in that time, the first quarter of 2020 was the only one when its economy did not expand. Today, however, more than 200 million Chinese live under pandemic restrictions, battering an already slowing economy. Retail sales in April were 11% lower year-on-year, while housing sales—comprising over a fifth of GDP—plummeted 47% over the same period. Unemployment across a sample of 31 major Chinese cities is now the highest per official data since records began in 2018. Scenes from early May of workers fighting with public health officials at a factory producing Apple MacBooks in Shanghai after they were refused permission to leave their workplace to rest at on-site dormitories spotlights the mounting friction between economic priorities and public health.
“Ordinary Chinese people have felt the heavy-handed authoritarianism of the Party in a much more direct and personal way than many people, especially young people, have before,” says Astrid Nordin, the Lau Chair of Chinese International Relations at Kings College London.
Since China began market reforms in the late 1970s, its ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has rooted its legitimacy in improving livelihoods. But over the last two years, President Xi Jinping has seized on China’s success conquering the virus as proof of the superiority of its political system over the West. These two success stories are now in direct conflict. On May 25, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang held an emergency meeting with over 100,000 party members where he warned China’s current economic woes were in some ways greater than the initial impact of the pandemic in 2020 and indicated that the annual growth target of 5.5% was unobtainable.
“The economic crisis owing to draconian measures to control the outbreak really shows the mess, miscoordination, and miscalculations by leadership at the top,” says Valarie Tan, an analyst on Chinese elite politics for the Mercator Institute for China Studies in Berlin. “We’re finally seeing the full manifestation of this ideological turn by Xi Jinping.”
Still, nobody expects Beijing to abandon its zero-COVID policy anytime soon. It’s especially sensitive for Xi as the 20th CCP Congress approaches in the fall, when the strongman is expected to assume a third five-year presidential term, ripping up the longstanding convention that leaders only serve two. The prospect of COVID-19 running amok while he takes this historic step won’t be countenanced. On May 5, the CCP’s Politburo’s standing committee, China’s apex political body, said zero-COVID was “determined by the nature and purpose of the Party,” thus expressly linking it with CCP legitimacy, while declaring that relaxing controls would lead to “massive numbers of infections, critical cases and deaths.”
Despite the ideological nature of China’s zero-COVID obsession, this grim prognosis is not hyperbole. According to a study published May 10 by researchers from Shanghai’s Fudan University, Indiana University, and the U.S. National Institutes of Health, relaxing COVID-19 restrictions in China could lead to 112 million cases and 1.5 million deaths in just three months. This is above all because China has not fully vaccinated 100 million of its 264 million citizens over 60, or 38%. In semi-autonomous Hong Kong, a wave of the highly transmissible Omicron variant led to some of the world’s worst daily mortality rates in recent months, with 95% of those deaths in over-60s who hadn’t been fully vaccinated.
In this regard, China is a victim both of its success in stemming the spread of less transmissible variants and of its backslapping propaganda. Elderly people with scant desire to travel abroad saw no need to get vaccinated against a virus that the state had triumphantly declared vanquished. Meanwhile, owing to a pernicious blend of national security and national pride, China has not approved any foreign vaccines, meaning it doesn’t have access to the most effective types, which are those based on mRNA technology. Homegrown alternatives have spotty efficacy.
Not that it really matters in a place where zero-COVID is the iron-clad law of the land. Even the best COVID-19 vaccines do not eliminate transmission, but they do slow the spread and drastically reduce the severity of symptoms. However, that renders them incompatible with any zero-COVID strategy, which doesn’t differentiate between mild or severe cases, or those in young and old. The policy targets infections, period, not sickness or deaths. “This is why it’s so political,” says Dr. Yanzhong Huang, senior fellow for global health at the New York City–based Council on Foreign Relations. “Unless they abandon their zero-COVID mindset there’s really no way out of this.” Little wonder even the WHO says that zero-COVID is unsustainable.
The Chinese public are wising up to this fact and complaints about the government’s handling of the pandemic have become common even on the nation’s heavily censored social media. This has led to a new official edict: jingmo, or silence. Stop grumbling, in other words. During that May 5 Politburo standing committee meeting, Xi vowed to crack down on “all words and deeds that distort, doubt, and deny our epidemic prevention policies.” Ominously, China’s National Health Commission chief Ma Xiaowei wrote in CCP ideological journal Qiushi on May 16 that more “permanent” quarantine hospitals must be built and weekly testing “normalized.”
Not hosting the AFC Cup won’t do much damage to China’s global reputation. But rolling lockdowns, which are sending China’s factories screeching to a halt, with cascading detrimental effects all the way down global supply chains, will make commercial partners look elsewhere. In Shanghai, China’s biggest port responsible for one-fifth of the country’s international shipping, average waiting time for import containers was 12.9 days on May 12, up from 7.4 days compared to six weeks earlier, according to shipment tracker Project 44. Over half of American businesses in China either delayed or decreased investments in China due to lockdown measures, according to a recent survey by the local U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Thanks to current measures, “China might be seen as a less reliable trading partner than previously,” says Nordin, of Kings College. “The question is how much less reliable than other possible alternatives?”
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