When President Xi Jinping started to travel outside China after a long period of international isolation, some analysts took it as a signal that years of Covid-induced constraints could be coming to an end.
Coverage of a mask-less Chinese leader shaking hands with other world heads at the G20 and APEC summits this month were interpreted as another sign of a potentially new approach to the pandemic. Indeed hopes had flared even further a few days earlier after a series of changes were announced in how China’s local governments should respond to the pandemic.
Markets reacted immediately, anticipating that the toughest controls could be coming to an end, breathing new life into the Chinese economy. Hong Kong’s benchmark Hang Seng Index jumped 14% in the subsequent week, with a key index of Chinese stocks in New York doing something similar over the same period.
Yet reports of three Covid-related deaths in Beijing in recent days – the first to be linked to the virus since May – have dampened hopes of a change in approach.
Schools in the capital have been closing and negative PCR tests are required once more to enter public venues or travel on public transport.
In fact, the number of deaths in China from Covid is very low by international standards (29,874 as of the middle of this week compared to 1.065 million in the United States, according to the World Health Organisation) and it’s similar with infection rates, which trail other countries by a huge margin. Yet an uptick in infections in other cities including Shijiazhuang, Guangzhou and Chongqing has lifted the nationwide total to six-month highs this week, putting massive pressure on efforts to remodel virus controls in a way that reduces disruption to the economy.
The latter seems to have been the main motivation in the announcement of 20 new measures for responding to Covid on November 11 – the most significant of which was a shortening of quarantine periods for close contacts of infected people to five days from seven, alongside changes that brought an end to mandatory testing and tracing of the close contacts of infected people, Caixin reported.
Yet all of this is more a case of “optimising” the existing regulations, not dropping them completely, officials from the National Health Commission have warned repeatedly.
“This is not to relax or lie down doing nothing, but to do a more precise and scientific job in pandemic prevention and control,” argued its deputy director Lei Haichao.
The state media has been parroting the same message for days that there is no desire to tangping (which means ‘lie flat’, or doing nothing) against Covid or deviate too far from the current efforts to contain it.
“Practice has profoundly shown that fast and accurate dynamic zero-Covid is an important magic weapon for our country’s epidemic prevention and control,” an op-ed in the state mouthpiece People’s Daily claimed.
Commentators on social media have still sensed a change of direction, however, especially in giving local officials more of a say in how to respond to the virus. Others wonder whether this is also a case of central government agencies growing reluctant to shoulder the full responsibility of enforcing zero-Covid, as criticism grows of the broader impact on the public.
In this kind of context local governments may not welcome the new direction and they might need more convincing to relax virus controls because of fears they will get the blame for situations in which Covid cases start surging in their areas.
Against that view were reports early this week that the National Health Commission is already worried that local authorities might relax protocols too far in the wake of the new measures. Hence another statement on Monday, warning that mass testing was still required in cities of more than 10 million people if an outbreak is at risk of growing rapidly.
A third possibility is that local officials are confused by the messaging on how they should be fine-tuning their response to Covid, which is feeding through into a stop-start campaign against the virus.
Taking centre-stage this week was Shijiazhuang, the provincial capital of Hebei which is about 190 miles from Beijing, for instance.
On hearing news of the initial relaxation in restrictions, authorities there put out a statement promising to implement the new measures “without fail”. Shopping malls, restaurants, bars and cinemas reopened almost immediately, with local residents allowed to enter public places without showing negative test results.
Indeed, such was the suddenness in the switch in strategy that rumours started that Shijiazhuang had been chosen to test out the new arrangements before they got extended to other parts of the country (although the city’s Party boss denied this view, adding the familiar phrase that his team would never tangping in the face of the virus).
Sure enough, only a week after easing restrictions Shijiazhuang started to reintroduce some of them, after 641 new local cases were reported on Sunday, up from 426 a day earlier.
The increase in infections triggered a new round of mass testing in six of the city’s eight districts, as well as the instruction that millions of residents in higher-risk areas stay at home until the end of this week.
Something similar has been happening in Baiyun, a district of 3.7 million people in the southern city of Guangzhou, where public transport was suspended and residents were ordered to show negative tests if they wanted to leave their homes.
The authorities in the vast metropolis of Chongqing have headed down a similar route, identifying so many of its districts as high-risk that most of the city went into lockdown.
All of these reports reinforce the view that the government is yet to have a major change of heart in how it responds to Covid, leaving China as the only major country in the world still trying to eradicate infections. By championing zero-Covid as the reason why far fewer people have died than in other countries, the government has also made it harder to loosen the restrictions without alarming the public. Success at curtailing Covid within Chinese borders means that most of the public has never been exposed to it either, leaving little of the population with immunity.
Perhaps that means that another indicator for a more dramatic change in policy is likely to be public health campaigns that prepare people for a wave of new infections.
An article in the People’s Daily caused a brief stir this month by claiming that symptoms of the disease are relatively light and short-lived for most people, for instance, while the state media has been featuring the views of people like Zhang Wenhong, an expert on infectious diseases and a social media celebrity, who told a news conference this week that the threat to human health from the virus is receding.
But probably the bigger signpost to a fuller loosening of Covid controls is another major push to get vulnerable groups vaccinated against the virus, especially the elderly.
Nearly two-thirds of over-80s have been fully vaccinated but only 40% have received booster shots, the National Health Commission acknowledges, describing an increase in primary and booster vaccinations among older people as “essential and imperative”.
“Serious infections are highly concentrated in the elderly with underlying diseases and even the smallest risk can be amplified across China’s huge elderly population,” the China Daily warned again on Tuesday.
In a similar vein, opinion pieces in the Global Times have been citing the experience of Hong Kong earlier this year, when a ‘fifth wave’ of infections killed about 10,000 people, many of them elderly. That is instructive on how the authorities need to speed up the vaccination effort, the newspaper reckoned. Another priority is boosting the capacity of intensive care units, it said, noting that the health authorities in Guangzhou have already created 240,000 beds in makeshift hospitals where Covid patients can be isolated.
But in the meantime the struggle goes on to find a way out of zero-Covid in way that rejects an “excessive, one-size-fits-all” approach while “avoiding an irresponsible exit,” another commentary from the People’s Daily admitted.
Adding to the confusion the Global Times reported that pharmacies had started selling the country’s first domestically developed oral drug for Covid on Saturday, only for that treatment to be removed from shelves within a few hours, sparking widespread online commentary. Not a lot of answers were forthcoming as to why the Genuine Biotech product had gone on sale and then been rapidly withdrawn.
In light of these uncertainties an economist from Japanese bank Nomura this week forecast Chinese GDP growth of just 4.3% next year.
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