PCR test station at Beijing Airport
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Beijing’s Olympian symbol of self-assurance

Omicron is a test for China, but its zero-Covid-strategy is seen as a sign of strength, writes Vincent Brussee. This is the sixth in a series of short analyses that looks at China’s systemic competition and normative rivalry with the US and the EU. A look beyond the Beijing leadership shows how far debates about the features of political systems and the power to interpret events reach into Chinese society – and possibly shape the country’s actions. 

During the Winter Olympics, the world is focused not just on the feats of athletes from all over the world, but also on the Games’ no-Covid “bubble” and China’s zero-Covid strategy – now transformed into “dynamic clearing” to deal with local outbreaks. Headlines around the world focus on the strategy’s mounting cost, economic and human. In Xi’an, a woman miscarried after being refused hospital admission because of an expired Covid-test.

But these headlines should not distract from the fact that, on balance, China’s approach has been a resounding success. One local outbreak has been followed by the next more quickly since the emergence of the coronavirus’ Delta variant last year. Yet they have all been contained and life in the country’s many low-risk areas has anyway continued as normal. Wu Zunyou, chief epidemiologist at the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), recently said that China may have prevented three million deaths by following this strategy.

Public health experts across China underline this view. As Zhong Nanshan, the country’s lead epidemiologist, has stated: “It is true that the current cost of adopting a ‘zero-transmission’ policy is indeed high. But it would cost even more if we were to live with [the virus] and open up”. China’s healthcare system, especially in less developed regions, would have a tough time coping with the likely huge influx of patients such a change of policy would bring.

China’s success in fighting Covid-19 has become a symbol of national self-assurance. Zhang Wenhong, one of China’s most famous doctors, said on social media: “Behind all our current sacrifices and perseverance is the country's scientific and technological strength to give us the confidence to persevere.” Science and technology is said to have guided China since the start of the pandemic. Soon after Wuhan was locked down in January 2020, the Spring Festival Gala TV-show lauded the country’s “most scientific prevention and treatment.”

Chinese experts criticize the USA’s politicization of the pandemic

In that spirit, Chinese experts criticize what they deem the USA’s politicization of the pandemic. Zhong identified it as the biggest issue confronting global cooperation. Attempts to pinpoint the origin of the virus were considered particularly vexing. “Once we began discussing the issue, some people focused on accountability,” Zhong said. Asked whether he would prefer a Chinese or an American vaccine, Zhang Wenhong replied: “When in Rome, do as the Romans do” – just get the vaccine available to you, don’t politicize the process.  

Neither doctor, however, publicly criticized China’s own attempts to politicize the virus. Foreign Ministry spokespeople like Zhao Lijian had responded to unwelcome speculation about the role of the Wuhan Institute of Virology with politicized conspiracy theories of their own. Indeed, although Zhong criticized as politicized the slow approval process for Chinese vaccines abroad, neither he nor Zhang dared comment on China not approving the mRNA-vaccines developed in the US and Europe. As Jin Dong-Yan, a professor at the University of Hong Kong, noted: “There is no scientific reason BioNTech cannot be approved in China”.

Not all experts in China are shy of politicizing Covid-19

But not all experts in China are shy of politicizing Covid-19. Just as the Delta variant was about to become dominant, former health minister Gao Qiang wrote a strongly-worded essay about international failings and lockdowns: “If human beings have the right strategy to deal with viruses, even the most powerful viruses can be defeated; if human beings have the wrong strategy to deal with viruses, even the weakest viruses can spread”. The failures of the USA and the UK had had “serious consequences to the global pandemic,” he added.

One reason for this are perceived differences in attitudes to human rights. Zhong Nanshan quoted Xi’s remarks that China had “pressed the pause button” on socio-economic development to save lives. Zhong rhetorically asked, “What is the greatest human right? It is life” and contrasted China with some Western countries. In his view, the latter’s emphasis on freedom and individual choice has led to low vaccination and skyrocketing infection rates. Instead, he argued, “Only once there is collective freedom, can the individual be free”.

Zhong Nanshan and Zhang Wenhong should not be seen as merely parroting for the line of the Chinese Communist Party. Zhong rose to fame during the SARS pandemic of 2002-2003 with his criticism of the government’s approach; Zhang became famous in early 2020 for openly calling on Party members to take more responsibility. But some of their comments are overly simplistic. Some Western countries have battled the virus more effectively than others – and not all failures can be attributed solely to an excess of personal freedom.

Can China’s dynamic clearing strategy hold?

But as Omicron grips the world, the world watches to see whether China’s dynamic clearing strategy can hold and when the country will finally open its borders again. The first question Zhang Wenhong answered with confidence: “China’s current … strategy is able to deal with all types of coronaviruses.” The quick suppression of the first Omicron outbreak in Tianjin suggests he might be right. Regarding the second question, China’s framing of its approach as “scientific” and “apolitical” leaves room for changes when the time is right. It has already switched from zero-Covid to dynamic clearing – even if this change was largely semantic.

With the Omicron variant pushing some European countries back into lockdown as mass-hospitalizations continue, Beijing cannot be blamed for thinking its strategy remains the correct one. But experts like Zhang Wenhong did offer some hope for the future: “This winter, we will spend the last cold winter together with the international community, and [then] we will finally ‘lift the clouds and see the sky’." But as to when Beijing might deem the conditions suitable to again reveal the sky – for this the good doctor provided no clues.

This analysis is part of a series supported by a Ford Foundation grant and is licensed to the public subject to the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.