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The Collapse of Zero-COVID

A Reading Roundup

For the past three years, as we have watched China adopt and implement a radical zero-COVID policy, many on the outside wondered, “How does this end?” The thinking was that testing people every day and locking down neighborhoods and cities couldn’t go on forever.

Could it?

Yet, with Chairman Xi’s insistence on its continuation, its cancellation was unthinkable.

Wasn’t it?

But in early December, the unthinkable happened. After three years of messaging to the Chinese people that “COVID will kill you and only we can keep you safe” (unlike those heartless bunglers in the West), the government suddenly seemed to be saying “never mind!” The health code apps were turned off. The neighborhood testing centers were dismantled. Travel restrictions were lifted. People were told to take responsibility for their own health.

Everyone was left scratching their heads. What happened? How and why was the zero-COVID policy abandoned so quickly with seemingly little to no planning? These questions will no doubt be the subject of PhD research for decades to come, but there have been a few articles recently that begin to shed light on what seems to have happened.

The first article I spotted that sought to tackle the question appeared in The Market, a think tank based in Switzerland. On January 3, they published an interview with China expert and Beijing resident Anne Stevenson-Yang. Her take was that the abrupt abandonment was evidence of a “quiet, internal revolt against Xi Jinping’s personal rule.” Although she admits she has no proof, her opinion is that other leaders were able to say to him, “Enough!”

There isn’t a lot of information coming out of China, which makes it very hard to figure out what’s going on. We never have any information about domestic politics, and now there is such a scarcity of information generally that I can only connect very few data points. But I have to say I think there has been some kind of quiet internal revolt against Xi Jinping’s personal rule.

A whole lot of signature Xi policies were immediately reversed. As you saw, the zero-COVID policy was simply dropped. The same goes for policies on loans concerning stalled property projects and policies on tech companies. All of a sudden, the government started to make positive noises about private companies. They also invited Australian foreign minister Penny Wong and a top US official to China, basically extending an olive branch to other countries. So clearly, all of these signature Xi policies have been reversed 180 degrees. It’s also noteworthy that at the China Economic Work Conference, a top-level meeting in mid-December, they didn’t mention slogans like “common prosperity” which is another key Xi policy. That makes me believe something very important has happened politically to reverse Xi’s power.

It’s an interesting take, that’s for sure. However, I find more plausible the observations put forth in the following two pieces.

On January 7, The Diplomat published a piece by Zhuoran Li, titled “How Beijing Accidentally Ended the Zero-COVID Policy.” According to Li, it ended because the new directives that had been coming from Beijing since early November were vague enough to allow lower-level officials to interpret them as instructions to end the strict zero-COVID measures. So they did. The resulting rise in cases forced the central government to “accept reality.”

The rushed opening-up did not come from Beijing; it resulted from local governments interpreting central government signals and getting ahead of Beijing regarding policy implementation.

Local officials interpreted these signals as Beijing’s intention to end the zero-COVID policy quickly rather than moving in small steps. Therefore, they rushed to re-open, fearing they might get left behind. One front-line social worker said their local leader told everyone that “zero-COVID has ended” and “everyone should return to their original duties” following the release of the New Ten Points.

Facing the sudden opening at the local level, Beijing realized that “the horse has already left the barn”; all it could do was accept the reality. On December 26, the State Council issued a new circular that codified opening at the local level.

On January 19, The Sinica Podcast posted a fascinating episode, titled “China’s Chaotic COVID Reopening,” in which host Kaiser Kuo interviewed Deborah Seligsohn, a political science professor at Villanova University who travelled to Beijing in November. She went through all of the testing hoops before departure and was quarantined for 11 days upon arrival. Then the policy ended, and she and everyone she went to visit got COVID. That was followed by two more weeks of seeing life return to normal in Beijing, which allowed her to talk to a wide range of people. Her take on the demise of the zero-COVID policy is that it just collapsed under its own weight:

I think the fundamental thing is that Omicron was making the system unworkable. There were just so many cases everywhere that lots and lots of people who, until then, had been able to live close to normal lives, were now suddenly under a great deal of pressure and worried that they were going to be locked down at any moment. And this fear of being trapped in your apartment was reified by the Urumqi fire, right?

I think the system imploded on itself. The 20 points had this sort of counterproductive response where every time a locality tried to open a little bit, they suddenly realized they had way too many cases and they would crack down. But mostly, most places didn’t even try to open. They just were busy imposing more and more lockdowns because the number of cases were going up. And the way the system was designed is, as cases increased, the system became more and more unwieldy. And this all had to do with Omicron. So, I think one of the things that you have to realize is, until Omicron, the system did not involve regular PCR testing of the whole population. Until 2022, people were not regularly being tested at all. The health code thing was… it was green as long as you stayed in an area that didn’t have cases.

The testing was no longer catching people in time to reduce the spread of the disease. And so, it was just building and building. And I think, between the fact that the testing system couldn’t keep up, the fact that housing developments were demanding that the local CDC issue the proper documentation, the whole system was just toppling of its own accord. And then, I think the case that was being made about the economic implications of continuing this, I suspect had the biggest influence.

It was one of the most fascinating and illuminating conversations I’ve listened to in a long time. Each of these three pieces is well worth your time if you want to understand the abrupt end of zero-COVID.

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Image credit: Shengpengpeng Cai via UnSplash.
Joann Pittman

Joann Pittman

Joann Pittman is Vice President of Partnership and China Engagement and editor of ZGBriefs. Prior to joining ChinaSource, Joann spent 28 years working in China, as an English teacher, language student, program director, and cross-cultural trainer for organizations and businesses engaged in China. She has also taught Chinese at the University …View Full Bio

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