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What does the future hold for China’s zero-COVID policies?

Sabri Ben-Achour, Erika Soderstrom, and Jarrett Dang Dec 2, 2022
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Scott Kennedy with the Center for Strategic and International Studies says China is beginning to move away from its strict COVID rules, even if the government won't admit it. Jennifer Pak/Marketplace

What does the future hold for China’s zero-COVID policies?

Sabri Ben-Achour, Erika Soderstrom, and Jarrett Dang Dec 2, 2022
Heard on:
Scott Kennedy with the Center for Strategic and International Studies says China is beginning to move away from its strict COVID rules, even if the government won't admit it. Jennifer Pak/Marketplace
HTML EMBED:
COPY

The Chinese government appears to be relaxing some of its COVID-19 testing requirements and quarantine policies in some cities. This comes after three years of lockdowns, forced quarantines and strict COVID regulations, which have led to a swelling of dozens of protests around the country. However, there’s concern that China isn’t ready to relax its stance, as many of the country’s seniors are still unvaccinated.

“There’s a lot of pent-up frustration that needs to be dealt with … and that’s why we’re seeing this outpouring of protest online and in the streets,” said Scott Kennedy with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in an interview with Marketplace’s Sabri Ben-Achour. “That said, this is not going to translate into a broader threat to the regime, or political stability, in part because [president] Xi Jinping and the Communist Party has so many tools to clamp down.”

The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Sabri Ben-Achour: You were just in China for two months. Did you get any sense of the resentment bubbling up that we’ve seen unleashed in the past week?

Scott Kennedy: Oh yeah, definitely. Just about everybody I met who I know really well, had expressed frustration that the restrictions had gone on for three years. Particularly in the wake of the Shanghai lockdown in the spring and the big imposition on their lives. So not just simply minor inconveniences, but really changing people’s ability to get their jobs done, their private lives, to travel domestically, not even internationally. And yep, I think people just really have had it. And they’ve compared where China is to the rest of the world, which has moved on and that’s made things worse for them.

Ben-Achour: You know, it seems like China’s government has backed itself into a corner. It refused to allow in foreign vaccines that were more effective than its own Sinovac vaccine and it didn’t push people, particularly the elderly, to get vaccinated, and instead just locked entire cities up. This is a country that can literally move mountains. So why did the government make these choices?

Kennedy: That is the biggest puzzle for everybody. But I think it comes back to the fact that for the first two years of the pandemic, this strategy of using the power of the state, both at the local level and through technology to control people’s movements, worked. They kept the virus at bay and the economy kept moving along. What they didn’t expect was that Omicron would overwhelm their efforts to do so. And they got themselves painted in the corner that way and wanted to stick with a policy that was no longer effective. Also, Xi Jinping was coming up on the 20th Party Congress in October to get a third term, and didn’t want to take the risks, most likely, of what might go wrong if they did switch gears. And so that’s why they are where they are right now. They will, no matter what, exit zero-COVID. Either they’ll do it willingly and proactively in an organized way, or they’ll get pulled, kicking and screaming out of zero-COVID because the virus is just not going to cooperate.

China and foreign COVID vaccines

Ben-Achour: You know, I’m still hung up on the refusal to allow foreign vaccines in. What was that about?

Kennedy: The Chinese are in a strategic competition with the United States, even if they won’t admit it themselves. And they don’t want to be dependent on foreign technologies, including vaccines. And they had developed their own mRNA versions, which they thought would be ready quickly. And it turned out that the efficacy of theirs is not as high as the ones developed in the west. And so they were going to only depend on domestic vaccines and the social controls, which they thought would work. And they found out that they’re not working as well as they had hoped. So you have to ask yourself, “Why would they do this?” And I think it really comes down to nationalism and this conflict with the west, and not wanting to be dependent on foreign technologies. When I spoke to some people in China about this, they weren’t just worried about these being foreign vaccines that came from overseas, but because of the conflict with the west, they were worried that at some point, the west might pull these vaccines from China or cancel the patents and leave China stuck with using vaccines that they wouldn’t be able to fully understand. And so I think there are a variety of reasons why they have not done what basically the rest of the world has done, which is participate in using these international vaccines.

Ben-Achour: Between the lockdowns and now protests and unrest, do you think there is a threat to China’s place as the manufacturer of the world or threat to supply chains?

Kennedy: The struggle that China has had with the pandemic and zero COVID is part of a larger list of problems that China has with the rest of the world: the strategic competition with the United States, the war in Ukraine, fears about Taiwan, climate change. There is a major reevaluation going on in boardrooms around the world about China’s place in these companies’ future [and] in the global economy’s future. And already major reassessments about China as a priority as a market, as a location for manufacturing for global supply chains — this just adds to those anxieties, and further propels companies to come up with alternative plans for how they produce and estimates for what the China market will be like going forward.

The road ahead…

Ben-Achour: As serious as these protests are, Chinese censorship is also very serious. Chinese law enforcement is deadly serious. So where do you see all this going?

Kennedy: You know, certainly Chinese [people] are really frustrated with zero-COVID. I visited Shanghai, where they had gone through two to three months of lockdown earlier this year, and they weren’t only angry, they were really depressed and traumatized and still dealing with this. So there’s a lot of pent-up frustration that needs to be dealt with. And that’s why we’re seeing this outpouring of protest online and in the streets. That said, this is not going to translate into a broader threat to the regime, or political stability, in part because Xi Jinping and the Communist Party has so many tools to clamp down — on censorship online, on the streets, you know, they will do anything. In addition, I think people really are not looking to change the political system and know that that’s an impossibility. What they want is their normal lives back. And that’s … I think, leadership has gotten that message. And even though they won’t admit that they’re adapting and moving away from zero-COVID, that is what they’re doing step-by-step, inch-by-inch. And so I think at some point, we will be in a different place in terms of their policies on COVID. But I think when we get there, Xi Jinping and the Communist Party will still be firmly ensconced in power.

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