World: China's 'COVID Zero' policy, explained

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Why lockdowns continue in the world's second-largest economy

Lockdowns and mask mandates are seemingly a thing of the past in the United States, but China's "COVID Zero" policy will remain in place, at least for now.

Despite "unfounded rumors" of an end to the policy — which shuts down entire cities as soon as an outbreak appears — Chinese officials have vowed to stay the course, CNN reports. They're sticking with the policy despite growing signs of internal backlash, and a growing toll on one of the world's biggest economies. "Practice has proved that our pandemic prevention and control policy and a series of strategic measures are completely correct, and the most economical and effective," one official told the network.

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That's not necessarily a popular stand. "We should strike a balance between freedom and rules," The Washington Post quotes from a Chinese social media post. "Shouldn't the rules also have limits?" Indeed, police arrested seven people in northeastern China after a clash between residents and police over the policy. What is the COVID Zero policy, and why are China's people so angry about it? Here's everything you need to know:

How does China's policy work?

Call it a lockdown on steroids. It's a "two-pronged" policy that emphasizes both prevention and containment, Reuters reports. The prevention part focuses on massive and frequent testing of the country's population, and a recent negative test "can be a requirement to enter a business or public facility." People who test positive are quarantined in their homes or in a government facility.

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Containment is the more far-reaching part of the policy, with "buildings, communities or even entire cities" put under quarantine when a COVID outbreak occurs. That even extends to the entire country: China's borders are closed to most visitors — and new arrivals must be isolated for 10 days before they're allowed to move freely. The point of all this? To eradicate the virus where it appears, before it can spread to the entire country.

What are the downsides?

Shutting down entire communities is obviously disruptive. "In some cases, lockdowns have led to widespread shortages of food and other daily necessities," The New York Times reports. During the spring of 2022, the city of Shanghai — a financial hub with a population of more than 26 million people — was locked down for more than 60 days. "Unable to secure fresh produce, many residents lived on instant noodles or rice porridge," the New Yorker reported in June. "Some of them protested with loudspeakers, or banged pots and pans."

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But the policy has also taken a toll on the economy and disrupted worldwide supply chains. China's exports dipped in October, for the first time since the early pandemic. Some of that loss was attributed to a weakening global economy — a worldwide recession seems possible soon — but also to the disruptions caused by COVID Zero. An October lockdown at a Foxconn plant that makes iPhones for Apple spurred workers to flee rather than be trapped at their jobs. That lockdown could affect up to 10 percent of iPhone production, the Washington Post reports, and serves as "another example of how China's covid controls are slowing an economy already" facing headwinds.

One other downside: It's not clear the policy is working that well anymore. China has had a relatively low death toll throughout the pandemic, but now COVID cases are on the rise.

Why haven't vaccines ended the policy?

That's a big question. "One key challenge is that Chinese vaccines are proving to be less effective," Wired reported in February, as the omicron variant was on the rise. "The numbers are stark: Sinovac is 51 percent effective in preventing symptomatic COVID infection. Pfizer is 95 percent effective." China agreed in November to allow the use of the vaccine developed by Pfizer and BioNTech — but only for foreigners.

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Politics also plays a role. In Foreign Policy,  Zongyuan Zoe Liu of the Council on Foreign Relations suggests that Chinese leader Xi Jinping and the Communist government are using the policy to "control China's interactions with the rest of the world" and also to prepare the Chinese people "for further isolation if the West imposes stricter economic sanctions" in the event of an invasion of Taiwan.

How are the Chinese people reacting?

There have been the aforementioned arrests and protests, as well as a lot of anger expressed on social media. But it's also notable that some of China's elites are starting to push back against the policy. Zhou Xiaoping — a "fiercely nationalist, anti-American blogger" who has been praised by Xi — criticized COVID Zero in an online post that was later removed. "The cost of epidemic prevention is not only the economic cost, there are also costs to our livelihoods and lives," he wrote, according to CNN. "Since (you vowed to) put the people first, you have to seek truths from facts." Despite these outbursts, Foreign Policy reports, "many young people have accepted that COVID-19 restrictions will be part of their lives for the foreseeable future."

When will things change?

Despite announcing they will stick with the policy, Bruce Einhorn writes for Bloomberg, there are "solid indications that Chinese officials have at least started a dialog" about easing some of the restrictions — measures that might include reducing quarantine requirements for foreign travelers.

But that moment might not come until next year. CNBC reports that Goldman Sachs analysts believe China could "reopen" in the second quarter of 2023. But that will take time and patience — officials will stick to COVID Zero, the analysts say, "until all the necessary medical preparations are done."

China exposed as world bully at G-20 summit .
Some analysts are wrongly pointing to the tenor of President Joe Biden's meeting with Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping as a sign of detente. The reality is that U.S. relations with China will continue to worsen because China's main ambition is to expand its influence and displace the U.S.-led democratic international order. Two incidents at the G-20 summit in Bali, Indonesia, underline the absurdity of believing that Sino-American relations can significantly improve. First, there was the experience of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Wednesday. Trudeau was very publicly dressed down by Xi in front of a gaggle of Canadian journalists.

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