Why China dumped its 'zero COVID' policy so suddenly — and disastrously
The Washington Post January 19, 2023
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Up until the last minute before China relaxed three years of severe COVID restrictions, officials and state media were hailing the country's "unswerving" commitment to a strict containment strategy and the "significant advantages of our socialist system."
That same system then witnessed a chaotic reopening, with the abrupt abandonment of lockdowns, mass testing, quarantines and contact tracing. Sick patients have since overwhelmed hospitals, and funeral homes and crematoriums have been mobbed, while relatives outside China scrambled to send basic medications that were suddenly nowhere to be found.
"It came too soon and caused massive infections in a short time," Liang Wannian, an epidemiologist and adviser to Beijing's COVID response team, told state TV last week, admitting that authorities were caught off guard. It is unclear how many have died; analysts estimate deaths could reach 36,000 a day during the Lunar New Year holiday that begins next week.
The sudden policy reversal in early December and lack of preparation in a country that for years marshaled huge amounts of resources and personnel to enforce COVID rules on 1.4 billion people have baffled residents and public health experts.
"There was no plan. No steps. No contingency plans. When Singapore reopened, it was in four stages. We've done it in one go," Wei Jianing, a researcher at the Counselor's Office, an advisory body of the State Council, said in a speech at an online forum Dec. 24. His comments were later censored on Chinese platforms.
"From hospital beds to medicine, vaccines and medical workers, we are not prepared. For three full years, there was no preparation at all," he added, accusing Chinese decision-makers of becoming "zombified."
Facing economic and social pressures, as well as an omicron variant that was already breaching COVID defenses, China's leaders had little choice about relaxing restrictions, but a potent mix of factors, including President Xi Jinping's highly centralized decision-making, the party's total mobilization for "zero COVID," and confused messaging, resulted in a rushed and chaotic reopening.
This mismanagement could not only dent public confidence in Xi just as he begins his third term, but also hurt the ruling party's ability to govern.
"The greatest political cost is the erosion of trust in him and the party," said Lynette Ong, professor of political science at the University of Toronto and author of "Outsourcing Repression: Everyday State Power in Contemporary China."
"China does not need to use coercive violence against its citizens because people generally believe in the party and its leaders. But if trust is gone and legitimacy lost, everyday policy implementation will become more challenging without the use of force," she said.
In November, after almost three years of zero COVID that paralyzed the economy, authorities moved toward a gradual reopening with a 20-point plan for "improving COVID control" aimed at toning down the most extreme measures.
It should have been a good time for the transition. Xi, recently reanointed as leader of the Communist Party and the military at a key party congress, was at the pinnacle of his power.
But local governments were confused. Up until then, upholding zero COVID had been their chief political task. Some cities loosened restrictions; others maintained them or tried to do both. As outbreaks of the omicron variant spread in major cities like Beijing and Guangzhou, authorities re-tightened COVID measures.
Frustrated by the whiplash return of restrictions, an exhausted public began to protest on street corners, universities and parks across the country, at a scale not seen since the 1989 pro-democracy demonstrations.
On Dec. 7, following the protests, which authorities stamped out through detentions and arrests, Beijing released another set of guidelines for local governments, abolishing mandatory testing and personal health codes, which were used to track coronavirus test results and gain access to shops and other public buildings. The new policy was not meant to signal a complete reopening, according to a State Council spokesperson at a news conference, but that the government would "take small steps" at opening up.
Yet local governments, reading it as a sign from the central government to end zero COVID, raced to implement the new policy. According to Li Zhuoran, a Ph.D. candidate in China Studies at Johns Hopkins University who interviewed officials from three localities, the rushed reopening did not come from Beijing but from local governments jumping the gun.
"This was a sort of chaos," Li said, adding that local authorities saw only two options: remaining closed or opening up. When the central government announced the opening — even though it was envisioned as a gradual process — officials rushed to comply. "They didn't want to be left behind."
Li compared China's zero-COVID directive to past political campaigns like Mao Zedong's disastrous Great Leap Forward or the Cultural Revolution. "What we see is when mobilization starts, there's always a clear sign … but transition out is a messy process," he said.
As the country lifted restrictions in the middle of winter, the already spreading infections mushroomed, exposing the limits of China's COVID response. Hospitals lacked basic anti-fever medication and intensive care unit beds, and the national vaccine campaign, which stalled in the spring, proved insufficient.
"They thought they had a few more months. In fact, they were not planning to reopen at this particular time," said Dali Yang, a political scientist at the University of Chicago. The laser focus on zero COVID, which had become highly political, cost the country time it could have spent preparing.
"As time wore on, the system became so obsessed with trying to keep up zero COVID. The bandwidth was sucked up by maintaining zero COVID," he said.
On Dec. 18, Wu Zunyou, chief epidemiologist at China's Center for Disease Control and Prevention, estimated that in the first wave of cases, between 10 percent and 30 percent of the population would be infected but with a fatality rate no worse than the flu.
Now, authorities admit that deaths from COVID are higher than they previously said — at least 60,000 in hospitals since December, a figure that does not include fatalities at home — and that the true death toll cannot be investigated until after the current wave.
"They could have done it quite differently," said Xi Chen, an associate professor of public health at Yale University. "China had a year to prepare," he said, noting the end of 2021 when omicron emerged. "It's still a puzzle why that year was not well spent."
Officials say infections have reached their peak, and propaganda outlets are emphasizing a new beginning. Still, it may be hard for residents to forget how wrong it all went.
Han Huanhuan, a university student in Shanghai who recently traveled to her parents' home for the Lunar New Year holiday, said she feels shellshocked after the past three years and doesn't totally trust the government's new policy.
"Even if it's really over, for us, the trauma is not over," she said. "If they can suddenly end all of these measures in an instant, they can also force it on us again. Whether it's reopening or tightening, it's all the same — it all happened suddenly with no thought about the people."
The Washington Post's Pei-Lin Wu in Taipei and Lyric Li in Seoul contributed to this report.