China could get in the way as world tries to move beyond COVID

As the rest of the world learns to live with COVID-19, China’s top leader Xi Jinping wants his country to continue striving to live without COVID-19 — no matter the cost.

China won a battle against the first outbreak in Wuhan, Xi said last week, and “we will certainly be able to win the battle to defend Shanghai,” he added, referring to the epicenter of the current outbreak in China.

But pressure is mounting for a change to the zero-COVID-19 strategy that has brought Shanghai to a standstill since March, has kept hundreds of millions of Chinese citizens across the country in lockdown and now threatens to bring Beijing to a standstill.

This week, the World Health Organization called China’s current pandemic strategy “unsustainable.” One economist summed it up as “zero movement, zero GDP”. Multinational companies have become wary of further investment in the country.

For over two years, China kept its COVID-19 numbers enviably low by doggedly responding to signs of an outbreak with testing and rapid lockdowns. Its success has allowed the Communist Party to boast that it had prioritized life over death during the pandemic, unlike Western democracies where deaths from the virus soared.

More portable variants like omicron threaten to dent that success, posing a dilemma for Xi and the Chinese Communist Party. Stricter lockdowns have been put in place to prevent infections from spreading, stifle economic activity and threaten millions of jobs. Chinese citizens have grown restless, resisting being forced to stay at home or relocate to grim government-run isolation facilities.

But abandoning the strategy risks a wave of deaths, especially among the tens of millions of unvaccinated elderly people in the country. Researchers this week warned of a “tsunami” of deaths if the virus were to spread unchecked, overwhelming China’s fragile national hospital system and raising the possibility of social unrest.

Fearing dissent during a politically important year for Xi, Chinese censors have rushed into action to muffle calls for a course change over COVID-19. The head of the WHO, whose recommendations once held China as a model, was silenced this week when he called on the country to rethink its strategy.

Photos and references to WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus were promptly deleted from the Chinese internet after the statement. The State Department responded by calling Tedros’s comments “irresponsible” and accusing the WHO of not having a “good understanding of the facts.”

China’s state-controlled media has also covered up the draconian measures officials have taken to deal with outbreaks. This week, as some authorities in Shanghai erected new fences around quarantine zones, boarded up more homes and asked residents not to leave their apartments, state media painted a picture of a city slowly returning to normal.

One article described the return of the “hustle and bustle of city life,” while another focused on statistics on the number of stores that had reopened.

But rosy reports in the state media cannot hide a looming challenge for Xi.

To date, according to official statistics, since March 1, the coronavirus has claimed 569 lives and infected about 777,565 people. If left unchecked, the outbreak could lead to 112 million infections and nearly 1.6 million deaths between now and July, according to a study by researchers at Fudan University in Shanghai and Indiana University in the United States.

“The situation is quite grim and the study clearly demonstrates the tremendous importance of vaccinating and encouraging the elderly,” said Marco Ajelli, an infectious disease modeling teacher at Indiana University’s School of Public Health who contributed to the study.

Less than half of people over 70 in Shanghai have received two shots, according to the survey. Across China, the number is 72%, a figure that health experts say should be 95% or higher. In dozens of cities where there have been outbreaks or partial lockdowns in anticipation of increasing cases, resources have been spent on eradicating the virus rather than on vaccinations.

Currently, the vaccines available in China are also not as potent as the foreign ones available in other countries. Chinese vaccines use traditional technology that has been shown to be less effective than the groundbreaking mRNA technology. China said last year it was close to approving BioNTech, a German mRNA recording made in collaboration with Pfizer, but it hasn’t happened. Several Chinese companies are in the testing phase of a homegrown mRNA option, and China also recently approved a COVID-19 antiviral pill from Pfizer called Paxlovid for emergency use.

Administering three vaccine shots, using antiviral therapies and offering more effective vaccines could help China navigate its way out of zero COVID-19, Ajelli said.

Investors and business leaders worry that China’s rigid adherence to its zero-COVID-19 policy could send the economy into free fall. “It is high time the government changed its strategy,” said Fred Hu, a prominent Chinese investor. The benefits of zero COVID-19 no longer outweigh the economic costs, he added. “Adhering to the zero-COVID strategy would decimate the economy and undermine public confidence.”

According to one estimate, nearly 400 million people in 45 cities in China have been shut down in some way in the past month, accounting for $7.2 trillion in annual gross domestic product. Economists fear the lockdowns will have a major impact on growth; an economist has warned that if lockdown measures remain in place for another month, China could be plunged into recession.

European and American multinationals have said they are discussing ways to move some of their operations out of China. Large companies that are increasingly dependent on the Chinese consumer market for growth are also sounding the alarm. Apple said it could see revenues drop from $4 billion to $8 billion due to the lockdowns.

Starbucks interim CEO Howard Schultz said the company is “virtually incapable of predicting our performance in China.”

Foreign investment has nearly dried up and some projects have been on hold for more than two years as pandemic restrictions have made it essentially impossible for foreign executives to visit China. When executives at multinational companies call on senior Chinese officials, their calls are met with silence, said Michael Hart, president of the US Chamber of Commerce in China.

“China has been very firm in its position that it has the right strategy and doesn’t want people to criticize it,” Hart said.

Some of China’s top leaders are also concerned about the economy. China’s Prime Minister, Li Keqiang, described the employment situation as “complicated and serious” as migrant workers and students struggle to find and keep jobs during the lockdowns.

Even as daily virus cases in Shanghai are steadily declining, authorities have tightened measures in recent days following Xi last week’s call to double down. Officials also began to force entire residential buildings into government isolation if only one resident tested positive.

The new measures are stricter than those at the start of the pandemic and have sparked unrest, previously rare in China, where citizens have largely supported the country’s pandemic policies.

In a video that was widely circulated online before it was taken down by censors, an annoyed woman screams as officials in white hazmat suits smash her door to take her to an isolation facility. She protests and asks them to give her proof that she tested positive. Finally, she picks up her phone to call the police.

“If you called the police,” one of the men replies, “I’d still be the one to come.”

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