Rise in outbreaks tests China’s zero-COVID policy easing

Earlier this month, the top governing body of the Chinese Communist Party eased slightly on the country’s strict zero-COVID policy, raising a glimmer of hope that the government is seriously considering lifting its public health controls at some point.

But as COVID cases surge again across the country, cities are once again locking down thousands of neighborhoods, including in the capital Beijing, and sending close contacts to quarantine centers – raising questions about how serious authorities are about one day fading out the zero-COVID policy.

“This is the typical political dilemma faced by the Chinese leadership,” said Yanzhong Huang, senior fellow in global health at the Council on Foreign Relations at Seton Hall University in New Jersey. “If you relax and open up it will create chaos, and if you tighten the policy it will be too rigid to allow for flexibility.”

On Tuesday, China recorded 28,883 new cases per day, a dramatic increase in a country that has become accustomed to no more than a few hundred cases per day. Almost half of the new cases are concentrated in the southern city of Guangzhou and the southwestern municipality of Chongqing. Guangzhou ordered a five-day lockdown in its most populous district, Baiyun, until at least this Friday.

All 41,000 available quarantine places were already taken as Chongqing tried to contain the latest outbreak, Li Pan, deputy director of the Chongqing Health Commission, said at a news conference. The municipality said it would accelerate construction of new quarantine facilities that can house an additional 47,000 people. More than 5,000 construction workers worked around the clock to open a makeshift quarantine center in just five days.

Many Chinese cities have also resumed mandatory mass COVID-19 testing, reviving concerns about a faltering domestic economy and dampening hopes of a speedy post-pandemic reopening. Previously, many smaller places suspended such testing because they could no longer afford to continue paying for millions of tests a day.

The surge in cases this month has left local authorities in a bind: they have been tasked with both reducing the burden of onerous COVID controls while keeping cases as close to zero as possible.

“Basically, you’re telling the local government to pursue conflicting goals,” Huang said.

Streets in Beijing are mostly empty due to the COVID lockdowns in China.  The authorities call for the measures "silent administration" – which means that residents cannot leave their homes, go to work or travel.

/Aowen Cao/NPR


Aowen Cao/NPR

Streets in Beijing are mostly empty due to the COVID lockdowns in China. Authorities call the measures “silent management” – meaning residents cannot leave their homes, go to work or travel.

In practice, cities are now imposing targeted lockdowns as they struggle to meet these competing goals. Authorities call the measures “silent management” – meaning residents cannot leave their homes, go to work or travel.

Zhengzhou, the capital of Henan province, has been vocal in denying that any of its districts is under lockdown, but residents said on social media they had been told to stay home. Taiyuan, the provincial capital of central Shanxi Province, is also under “silent administration,” meaning all businesses must suspend personal operations and only vehicles with special exceptions are allowed on the road.

“Currently, the city’s disease prevention and control has entered the most strenuous and critical phase,” said an official statement from the city of Taiyuan.

The port city of Tianjin, which has registered fewer than 200 cases, announced last Sunday city-wide mass testing, during which residents will not be allowed to leave their homes until they receive proof of a negative test.

In Beijing, the country’s capital, all residents of the city’s largest district, Chaoyang, have been told not to leave the district because of a spike in cases. Shanghai on Tuesday night further tightened rules for people entering the city after a rising number of cases following a major trade fair, with all arrivals now required to take four COVID tests in five days.

In China’s more remote regions, however, underfunded local governments have meant zero-COVID controls have never been relaxed.

Hohhot, the capital of Inner Mongolia, has been under lockdown since early October. Residents of the western region of Xinjiang have suffered the most draconian measures, with non-stop lockdowns there now lasting more than 100 days, including the capital Urumqi.

Such strict lockdowns have led to social unrest. Violent protests erupted early Wednesday at a Foxconn factory in central China, the world’s largest iPhone factory. Videos posted on social media show hundreds of factory workers clashing with security guards over lack of pay and what workers call unfair COVID policies.

The restrictions and dissatisfaction have put a damper on production. Earlier this month, Apple announced in a statement that it had temporarily reduced production of the iPhone 14 due to COVID-19 restrictions at its primary iPhone assembly plant in China.

The unrest highlights tensions between Beijing’s tough COVID rules and its drive to restart the economy. But until more specific guidance comes from the central government, local authorities will be forced to agree competing targets.

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