A Bitter Winter: Omicron Tests the Limits of China’s Zero-COVID Approach

People stand in line for mass testing in Xi’an, Shaanxi, province (source: Xinhua)

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has sought to achieve a “zero-infection” (零感染,ling ganran) rate among its population. The Chinese  government has pursued this objective through the “dynamic clearance” (动态清零, dongtai qing ling) policy, which is predicated on keeping China’s international borders largely closed, and rapidly detecting, isolating, and eliminating domestic outbreaks (People’s Daily, January 7). Dynamic clearance relies on digital monitoring, mass testing, and controlling population movement to achieve early detection and reduce of COVID-19 transmission. Responses to even single-digit case clusters include mandatory lockdowns, and centralized quarantines in government health centers for potentially infected or exposed groups (Xinhua, August 19, 2021).

The global proliferation of increasingly contagious COVID-19 variants, first delta and now Omicron, has increased the cost and decreased the efficacy of China’s “dynamic clearance” policy. Recent developments in Xi’an, Shaanxi province, underscore the downsides of China’s zero-COVID approach. The ancient capital city of 13 million people has endured over three weeks of stringent lockdown. Residents are not permitted to leave their homes for any reason except testing, and must rely on delivery services for food and other essentials. Earlier this month,  the situation became so dire that people shared accounts of their difficulties obtaining food, toiletries, or emergency medical treatment on social media. In a widely shared Weixin post that has since been deleted for “content violations”, independent journalist Jiang Xue observed: “The market is closed, and the city’s daily logistics and distribution have stopped. In a large city of 13 million people, is it possible to depend on grassroots staff/volunteers to deliver food to the door in short periods of time?”  (Weixin; Victor Shih- Twitter, January 4, 2022).

On January 3, one million citizens in Yuzhou, Henan province were placed under lockdown after three cases were detected (South China Morning Post (SCMP), January 4) This week, five million residents in Anyang, Henan, and 14 million in Tianjin underwent mass testing and partial lockdowns have been implemented in both cities (HKFP, January 10). The situation in Tianjin is particularly sensitive for the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP), as the city is just over 100 kilometers from Beijing where the Winter Olympics will be held in February. According to the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Tianjin is also where Omicron arrived from overseas before spreading to Guangzhou, Changsha, and Shenzhen (officials claim the Delta variant is responsible for the Xi’an outbreak) (Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, January 10)

Despite the high economic costs and growing public frustration with life under zero-COVID mandates, General Secretary Xi Jinping has doubled down on the current approach, particularly given recent findings that Chinese vaccines are mostly ineffective against the Omicron variant (Taiwan News, December 24, 2021). China has largely averted the virus surges that other countries have suffered, but the policy of quarantining millions to contain small outbreaks is a brute force approach to epidemic prevention. It is not only economically costly, in some areas such as Xi’an, quarantine restrictions have been implemented in a draconian fashion, which has created temporary deprivation and engendered popular resentment toward government authorities, particularly at the local level. In response to growing internal and external criticism, the CCP has sought to shape a positive narrative about China’s zero-COVID strategy by emphasizing its collective benefits, controlling information about the domestic situation in China, and redefining success in the battle against the virus.

Season of Sacrifice

In his New Year’s address, Xi reviewed China’s accomplishments in 2021, including the strong and united national epidemic response. He praised the “hard work and dedication of countless unsung heroes” underscoring the sacrifices the CCP is asking the Chinese people to make to achieve zero-COVID (Xinhua, January 1). As Xi addressed the nation, Xi’an had already been under lockdown for over a week. In order to curb community transmission, Xi’an Deputy Mayor Xu Mingfei stated that some residents had been placed in “centralized quarantine” (集中隔离,Jizhong geli) (People’s Daily, January 5). Centralized quarantine entails temporarily removing at-risk individuals from their homes, isolating, and testing them in government health centers. It is unclear exactly how many people have been through, or are in centralized quarantine in Xi’an at present. A recent New York Times investigation estimates around 45,000 people were interned, and anecdotal accounts from Chinese netizens  include photos of long bus lines leaving the city for quarantine centers at night (Twitter, January 2; NYT, January 12).

In late December and early January, as logistics in Xi’an became increasingly strained, food prices skyrocketed. On Weibo, a Xi’an resident posted that normally a  single Cabbage was around  8 RMB ($1.30) but during lockdown cost 33 RMB ($5.19) (Weibo, December 30, 2021). Of course, most people had no choice but to pay exorbitant prices for whatever food was available. Early in the lockdown, jokes about cooking cabbage circulated on social media as it was the only procurable food for many people (NPR, January 5).Lack of food drove some people to take even more drastic measures, Taiwanese broadcaster TVBS reported social media posts showing people killing a cat to eat (TVBS, December 31, 2021).

Emergency medical services in Xi’an were also interrupted due to epidemic prevention restrictions. A woman posted online that her father suffered a heart attack, but was denied hospital entry by security guards, and eventually died (Twitter, January 5). At least one woman also miscarried due to delayed childbirth treatment at a hospital (SCMP, January 11). In a rare admission of official culpability, Vice Premier and Politburo member Sun Chunlan expressed “deep shame” over the miscarriage incident, and promised to ensure peoples’ access to medical treatment, (SCMP, January 7; People.cn, January  6). Yesterday, operations at the two hospitals where these tragic incidents occurred were suspended and an official review was announced (SCMP, January 13).

As part of its effort to get as close to COVID-zero as possible for the Olympics, the government is requiring tens of millions of citizens to quarantine through the January 31- February 6  Lunar New Year and Spring Festival holidays (Sina, January 10). In December, China’s National Health Commission (NHC) released its “Work Plan for the Control of COVID-19 during the New Year’s and Spring Festival Holidays” (NHC, December 20). In addition to enhancing measures to prevent overseas transmission, the plan stresses strengthening management of peoples’ movement. The NHC work plan bans people in high and medium risk areas from traveling during the holiday, and strongly discourages citizens in cities with any risk areas from leaving home. Temple fairs, theatrical performances, exhibitions and promotions are banned, and family gatherings limited to no more than ten people.

Promoting a Positive Narrative

The CCP consistently asserts that its “zero-COVID” approach is an exemplar of the Chinese system’s superiority. For example,  a recent piece in the CCP’s theoretical journal Qiushi claims that China’s willingness to “hit pause” on economic growth during the pandemic underscores its commitment to the health and wellbeing of all people. The authors, experts in Marxist studies at Wuhan University, argue this demonstrates the superiority of China’s collectivist values over those of individualistic Western countries, which they assert  privilege wealthy interests over the common good (Qiushi, August 1). Contrasting the Chinese and U.S. epidemic responses is a regular  theme in official media. In November 2021, a  Xinhua article observed that the U.S. had lost more than 754,000 lives due to COVID-19, and claimed that “the Chinese mainland has not reported a single death since January” and that all “small-scale regional outbreaks in China over the past months were caused by imported cases”  (Xinhua, November 8).

In addition to promoting the success of China’s “zero-COVID” approach, the government has cracked down on online information that runs counter to the official account of the public health situation. For example, on Monday, in a widely reported arrest, police in Tianjin detained a 32 year old netizen for posting a video claiming that the city had 700 virus cases  (People.cn, January 10). Following the arrest, Public Security in Tianjin instructed the public to strictly adhere to counter-COVID-19 laws and to remain calm: “do not panic, do not spread rumors, do not believe rumors” (Tianjin Municipal People’s Government, January 11).

Shifting the Goal Posts 

As the highly-transmissible Omicron variant spread across the globe in December 2021, public health authorities in China began to lower the standard of success for the dynamic clearance policy. At a December 11 press conference of the State Council  Joint Prevention and Control Mechanism, Liang Wannian, head of a government expert group, stated that dynamic clearance and zero infection are not the same thing (Gov.cn, December 12, 2021). Per Liang, prevention of every case is impossible but  timely and proactive public health and social interventions” undertaken though dynamic clearance, are critical to  “rapidly identify case clusters and extinguish the epidemic.”

Conclusion

Despite growing international and domestic concern, the CCP appears to perceive its zero-COVID approach as its only viable short-term option to counter Omicron’s spread. Consequently, China’s borders will remain largely closed off to international travel throughout 2022. In order to sustain China’s low death rates against the more transmissible variant, the state will sustain or increase restrictions, limit population movements and place increasing numbers of people in centralized quarantine. As the rare expression of official regret from Vice Premier Sun Chunlan and official investigations of recent incidents in Xian underscores, the current policies carry domestic legitimacy costs for the CCP.

Over the last month, an Increasing number of outbreaks in large urban areas have led to partial shutdowns of major manufacturing and infrastructure centers. Several large factories producing smartphone chips and auto parts have shuttered in Xi’an, and sections of  Ningbo, Zhejiang, one of the world’s biggest ports, have closed  (Samsung, December 29, 2021; NPR, January 7). Due to the probable continuation of a zero-COVID strategy through 2022, Goldman Sachs recently downgraded its projection for China’s 2022 growth from 4.8 to 4.3 percent (CNBC, January 11). Nevertheless, Xi is likely to prioritize stability above all else as he  seeks to lock in another 5-year leadership term at the 20th party congress this fall, and hence is unlikely to loosen restrictions and risk a major COVID-surge.

John S. Van Oudenaren is Editor-in-Chief of China Brief. For any comments, queries, or submissions, please reach out to him at: [email protected].