Medical equipment supplied by the World Food Programme (WFP) arrives in Beijing.
Meanwhile, as COVID-19 infections surged in China, coronavirus experts gathered at the UN health agency in Geneva on January 3, to discuss next steps. Photo courtesy of Yingshi Zhang
By Jan Servaes
BRUSSELS, Jan 4 2023 (IPS)
Three years after the coronavirus first emerged in the Chinese city of Wuhan, the Chinese government began in December to abruptly scrap its harsh containment policy known as “zero-Covid.”
This zero-Covid policy relied on strict lockdowns, use of a Covid tracking app, domestic travel restrictions, and quarantining those who test positive along with their close contacts. But the strategy isolated the country from the rest of the world and dealt a severe blow to the world’s second-largest economy.
The government announced that from January 8 onwards, mandatory quarantine on arrival for travelers to China will end and Chinese people will be able to travel abroad again after three years.
The switch followed unprecedented protests against the policies championed by President Xi Jinping, marking the strongest display of public defiance in his decade-long presidency and reminiscent of the 1989 Tiananmen tragedy in many minds.
“What matters is that we reach consensus through communication and consultation. When the 1.4 billion Chinese work with one heart and one mind, and stand in unity with a strong will, no task will be impossible and no difficulty insurmountable”, Xi stated in his nationally broadcast New Year’s message.
“We have now entered a new phase of COVID response where tough challenges remain. Everyone is holding on with great fortitude, and the light of hope is right in front of us. Let’s make an extra effort to pull through, as perseverance and solidarity mean victory.”
The question is: how many Chinese are still being taken in by this tough language now that hospitals have been hit by a tidal wave of mainly elderly patients since the lifting of the zero-covid policy, crematoriums are overloaded and many pharmacies no longer have anti-virus and fever medication.
Initially, photos and video fragments of these harrowing conditions were still censored, but recently even the China Daily reported on them. The magnitude of the outbreak remains unclear for now, and the lack of transparency can be attributed to strict censorship and the fact that government officials have stopped reporting asymptomatic cases and introduced a new definition of covid-related deaths.
Only patients with the virus who die due to pneumonia and respiratory failure now meet the criteria, according to China. The National Health Commission (NHC) further announced that it is no longer releasing an official daily Covid death toll.
In addition, the state news agency Xinhua reported that from January 8, China will lower its priority management of Covid-19 cases and treat it as a class B infection rather than a more severe class A infection. Liang Wannian, head of the expert panel for the COVID-19 response under the NHC, said the shift does not mean China is letting go of the virus, but instead is focusing more resources on rural areas to contain the epidemic.
According to Nikola Davis, science correspondent for The Guardian, China is experiencing this surge for a number of reasons. The relaxation of restrictions has allowed the virus to spread more. Plus, the slow vaccination campaign in much of China, coupled with the use of the less effective locally produced Sinovac vaccine, means the population has little protection and many vulnerable people are still at risk from the virus.
In addition, the tight restrictions previously in place mean few people have contracted Covid before. That means there is little natural immunity at play in the current wave.
As a result, many people are now simultaneously getting Covid and requiring hospital care, leading to increasing pressure on the healthcare system. In addition, the inadequate medical infrastructure (there remains a major shortage of intensive care beds and well-trained staff) as well as substandard general hygiene (clean toilets, washing hands, etc.) must also be added.
So the ink of my contribution on ‘China: From A Health Crisis to A Political Crisis?’ was barely dry before my fears came true: China is in the middle of a relentless covid wave. Chinese authorities estimate that about 250 million people, or 18 percent of the population, were infected with the COVID-19 virus in the first 20 days of December.
Despite this increase, the government insists it has the rising infections and circulating variants under control. Yet these ‘official’ figures do not seem to correspond with the reality on the ground.
People will continue to grope in the dark about the correct figures. The Chinese government and the so-called worldometers are still counting only 5250 covid deaths, while the World Health Organization (WHO) recently published the number of 31,585.
Some academic friends and former students, though not epidemiologists, whisper that up to 60% of the Chinese have or have been exposed to covid.
Airfinity, a UK-based company that analyzes health risks worldwide, also comes with worrying figures. They currently estimate 11,000 daily deaths and 1.8 million infections per day in China, while it expects 1.7 million fatalities by the end of April 2023.
The researchers say their model is based on data from China’s regional provinces, before changes in infection reporting, combined with case growth rates from other former zero-Covid countries.
It is feared that the numbers will rise even more in the coming weeks. Especially around the Chinese New Year on January 22, when almost every Chinese goes to visit friends and family.
Is Xi Jinping firmly in the saddle?
Xi Jinping secured a historic third term as leader in October, emerging as China’s most powerful ruler since Mao Zedong. He thus further consolidated his power in a process that began a decade ago, a concentration that has steered China in a more authoritarian direction and which critics warn increases the risk of policy missteps.
The year 2022 ended with unprecedented street protests, followed by the sudden reversal of its zero-Covid policy and coronavirus infections sweeping through the world’s most populous country. This, together with the sluggish economy, has damaged his image considerably.
For decades, China has been the world’s leading economic growth engine and the hub of industrial supply chains. The World Bank and other experts expect the reopening of the Chinese economy to boost growth to 4.3% in 2023, compared to the forecast of 2.7% for 2022.
This is still reasonable by international standards, but remains below the official target of about 5.5%. Choked consumption and disrupted supply chains continue to weigh on the crisis in the huge real estate sector. A prolonged economic slowdown or new logistical concerns, whether due to COVID or geopolitical tensions, could reverberate globally.
Beijing’s relations with the West deteriorated over Xi’s partnership with Moscow just before Russia’s February invasion of Ukraine, as well as rising tensions over US-backed Taiwan, which China considers part of its territory.
Xi traveled abroad for the first time since the pandemic began in September, where he met with Russian President Vladimir Putin. In November, he met US President Joe Biden at the G20 in Indonesia, where both sides sought to cement relations.
According to Chinese diplomacy, a recent phone call between China’s new foreign minister Qin Gang (the outgoing ambassador to Washington and Xi’s confidant) and US secretary of state Antony Blinken has ironed out the folds.
Diplomatically, Xi appears to be trying to ease some of the tension that has made relations with the West increasingly fraught, even as Beijing tries to strengthen its position as a counterweight to the post-World War II US-led order. Xi’s recent visit to Saudi Arabia and meetings with representatives of Gulf states could be viewed in this context.
But things are also rumbling within the government and the almighty Communist Party (CCP). Leaked excerpts of an internal policy brief published in the Sydney Morning Herald, discussed at a recent Politburo, state that “the zero-Covid dynamic was an unqualified success and demonstrated the superiority of the Chinese communist system over the cowardly and immoral West, but that it can now be brushed aside because omicron is ‘just like the flu’”.
“We must resolutely follow the line of the party. We must never deviate from the notes,” Xi told the Politburo during the “self-criticism” session, a Maoist practice that is back in vogue.
Authoritarian regimes with near-absolute control over the media can sometimes facilitate breathtakingly destructive policies. It is difficult to think of a more unhinged policy than suddenly exposing an inadequately vaccinated population to massive infection in the middle of winter, just before the great Chinese New Year inland migration.
Fortitude appears to be one of Xi Jinping’s principles, as his New Year’s letter affirmed: “Everyone stands firm with great fortitude, and the light of hope stands right before us.”
Jan Servaes was UNESCO-Chair in Communication for Sustainable Social Change at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. He taught ‘international communication’ in Australia, Belgium, China, Hong Kong, the US, Netherlands and Thailand, in addition to short-term projects at about 120 universities in 55 countries. He is editor of the 2020 Handbook on Communication for Development and Social Change.
IPS UN Bureau