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Millions of people under lockdown for 1,100 cases. When will China’s zero-covid policy end?

Nearly 300 million people are under some form of covid lockdown in China. When will the government’s notoriously strict policy ease up?

It was just the latest example of the extremes that officials and healthcare workers have gone to under China’s zero-covid policy, which aims to eradicate all infections through mass testing and lockdowns. Even in the face of the highly contagious omicron variants, China has stuck steadfastly to its approach while other countries have abandoned the idea of shutting down cities to stop transmission.

Some experts have predicted that the policy will be relaxed after the Communist Party congress in October, a crucial meeting for Chinese President Xi Jinping, at which he is expected to secure a third term. But the party has yet to signal a shift.

“I don’t think the policy is long-term sustainable,” Hale told Grid. “I think it’s a question of when it will change, not if it will change.”

Where public opinion stands on zero-covid

In the ideal version of China’s zero-covid policy, routine testing identifies cases before they spread too quickly, and lockdowns are imposed only briefly — with only minimal disruption to a city and its population.

In some cases, cities have been able to pull this off. In Shenzhen, many residents were allowed to return to their daily lives after the recent three-day lockdown brought infections under control.

In Chengdu, Mr. Li, a retired civil engineer who has been spending the summer with his in-laws, said that his lockdown experience had been mostly smooth so far. (Li spoke on the condition of partial anonymity due to the sensitivity of the topic). People were given half a day off work to prepare for the lockdown and buy groceries. “Chengdu people have a good sense of humor and jokingly called it the ‘Official Shopping Festival,’” Li said, “because everyone rushed to the stores to grab vegetables and meat, and it was as lively as a holiday — as lively as New Year’s.” Despite the crowds, Li said he was able to buy enough food for his family and has been able to receive deliveries of additional goods.

Even for Li, who had few complaints about Chengdu’s handling of the situation, the policy is growing tiresome. “I share the general consensus, which is a feeling that it’s not really necessary,” he said, citing the milder symptoms of recent variants. “Everyone thinks the situation is kind of laughable, but everyone knows why it’s like this: It’s a political necessity.”

The economic burden grows

With its far-reaching censorship regime, the Chinese government has been able to tamp down criticism of the policy. But the economic toll has become impossible to hide.

Chinese leaders aren’t blind to these issues. “I think the central government is aware of the risk of sacrificing too much economic output,” Hao Zha, a researcher at the University of Oxford Blavatnik School of Government, who leads its tracking of the Chinese government response to covid. He pointed to new orders released by China’s National Health Commission in June that urged local officials to avoid overreacting to outbreaks.

Does zero-covid have an expiration date?

The fact that China hasn’t made a stronger vaccination push has surprised many public health experts. “They have very good execution power in China, but still the vaccination rate in the elderly remained very low for so long, which is actually quite puzzling,” Jin Dong-yan, a virus expert at the University of Hong Kong Medical School, told Grid. China has also rejected foreign-made mRNA vaccines in favor of its domestically produced shots, which have shown solid protection with three doses but are less protective than the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. “If they do care about the efficacy and effectiveness of the vaccines, they should quickly approve the Pfizer or the Moderna,” Jin added.

Why hasn’t China fully embraced the tools and measures needed to abandon the costly zero-covid policy? Again, the answer seems to be largely about politics.

“In the United States, Dr. Anthony Fauci […] I mean at least his voice has been heard by the leadership and by the general public,” Jin said. “But in China, there’s no voice from the experts.”

Ultimately, foreign public health and China experts say the policy will have to change due to the economic costs, but for now the question is when and how Xi will lay out a post zero-covid vision for China. “The main thing is preparing a political narrative that can help move the country and society, which is now quite attached to this narrative, to a new way of doing it,” said Hale. “That’s a challenge for any government, and it will be a really big barrier holding back the transition.”

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