China has no easy exit strategy from zero-COVID, says Dali Yang

Dali Yang, professor of political science at the University of Chicago and a leading expert on China’s political system, says in an interview there are both public health and political compulsions driving Xi Jinping’s hardline approach and China faces no easy exit strategy while it still remains isolated from the world.

April 26, 2022 04:30 pm | Updated 04:30 pm IST - Hong Kong

People line up to be tested for COVID-19 coronavirus in Zhongguancun in Beijing on April 26, 2022.

People line up to be tested for COVID-19 coronavirus in Zhongguancun in Beijing on April 26, 2022. | Photo Credit: AFP

For several weeks, Shanghai, China’s financial centre, has been in a harsh lockdown, marked by food shortages as well as disruption in access to medical care. Despite widespread public anger over the measures, President Xi Jinping has said China’s “dynamic zero-COVID” strategy will remain in place and cities need to curb outbreaks regardless of rising economic costs and high vaccination rates. Dali Yang, professor of political science at the University of Chicago and a leading expert on China’s political system, says in an interview there are both public health and political compulsions, and China faces no easy exit strategy while it still remains isolated from the world.

Edited excerpts.

How did the situation in Shanghai end up in such a crisis? What did the government get wrong?

Clearly there have been some issues of misjudgement. When the situation in Wuhan happened, that was the novel coronavirus; people didn’t know how the virus behaved, how serious it was. The situation was very different compared to today. Shanghai has the Omicron variant, which is known to be much more transmissible but also less lethal for the vaccinated. The Shanghai population is highly vaccinated in general. Except for senior citizens, it is less so. China has imported Paxlovid and they have various other therapeutics available as well. So there is a big difference [from Wuhan].

Shanghai gained this reputation for being able to do targeted, precision management of COVID [without locking down]. Of course, in the end, they failed. There was an issue of misjudgement certainly at the end of March, of sub-municipal authorities not being very proactive. There was hesitation, as the Shanghai municipal leadership and the experts were publicly talking about, ‘how could we even entertain the idea of shutting down Shanghai’? They couldn’t, because they thought of Shanghai as such an important city economically. But that [approach] rests on the understanding that the disease is manageable now and is not as lethal because the population is highly vaccinated.

However, the national leadership has a very different idea, especially after what happened in Hong Kong, which is now is in a good situation today, but a month ago, was in a state of panic and many of the elderly who died were not vaccinated [there were more than 8,000 deaths of mostly unvaccinated elderly while those inoculated with both Pfizer and Chinese vaccines saw reduced hospitalisation and death]. The national leadership saw that kind of a situation as unacceptable for the rest of China. So the lockdown of Shanghai came from above.

Shanghai had to comply with it, but they did not have a contingency plan in terms of locking down a city of more than 25 million people. The big lesson from Wuhan was that even when you lock down, there are essential services that you have to keep running, along with logistics provisions. You want to make sure that people don’t die from the lockdown itself. They need access to emergency medical services. Shanghai failed in making sure the logistics system continued to operate in a reasonably orderly manner. They tried to substitute it with the State, but there’s a reason why the State cannot replace commercial platform companies. Those are efficient, have the management skills, the information, and so on. But they were largely immobilised for a while.

The city is still recovering from that situation. Under the order to quarantine everybody who is infected, they were putting numbers in the six figures into quarantine quarters at a time when they didn’t have much space. It was a very messy situation, and in that process, they made some grave errors. For example, they lost a lot of public trust when there was this effort to bring toddlers in without them being accompanied by a parent. They later adjusted, but the loss of public trust was enormous. If they had the right people, someone should have said, ‘This is crazy, you shouldn’t be doing this.’

While there were failures at the local level, how did Beijing’s expectations dictate the response?

This is the politics of ‘dynamic zero-COVID’ at work. It dedicated the Chinese system to the pursuit of zero-COVID. But in the case of Shanghai, there was this aura that Shanghai could do it better [without locking down] but instead it appears they did not prepare for such an eventuality. Local officials are operating under the parameters set by the Centre. And the Centre said explicitly you can’t go it alone given this is an infectious disease.

What have you made of the public response to the measures? We have seen an outpouring of anger on Chinese social media as well as much more criticism of zero-COVID than previously.

Generally, the public continues to support zero-COVID as far as I can see, but they are primarily in cities that are not affected by lockdowns! When you are in lockdown for three, four, five, weeks, and when you are struggling to gain access to food, spending hours on apps daily trying to get food, people are going to question the zero-COVID strategy. We’ve seen quite a number of people in Shanghai who have raised their voices and really raised serious questions about it. People are asking, if you say Chinese vaccines are so good, Chinese medicines are so good, then why can’t you open up? The current lockdown is really revealing the massive costs of such an approach.

But there is no easy exit. Even if China decides to exit zero-COVID, there would still have to be a messy process. There would have to be efforts to mitigate the virus if it spreads rapidly. At the same time, more and more people are comparing the current variant with the flu.

Despite all the politicisation in China that zero-COVID shouldn’t be questioned, people continue to question it. With the situation in Shanghai, other cities are learning the lessons of Shanghai and they are doing a better job, such as Guangzhou. Local officials are much more proactive. However, that means they are not trying for a targeted approach anymore, and that is hurting the economy badly in the process. So it is not an easy situation in many ways.

The deaths among elderly, given low vaccination rates, is one major concern of opening. The State has the power to lockdown, but why has it been unable to vaccinate the elderly?

Yes, the State has a lot of power. They worked hard last year to vaccinate mostly the people who were least at risk. With the elderly it is more tricky, it’s a social problem. The government worries if something happens with the elderly with side-effects what the families will do. In fact in Wuhan in 2020, China should have done autopsies from the very beginning, but guess how long it took them to get the first autopsy done? It was not until the middle of February that they finally secured agreement from a family to conduct the first autopsy. So when it comes to the elderly and the deceased, there’s a social issue and almost a kind of phobia about this in China. Similarly with vaccinations, the authorities are very careful in pushing it. They don’t want families to come outside their doors. 

It also doesn’t help that they don’t let the people know the truth about, for example, how many deaths there are. To some extent, you need to get people scared and then they are willing to take vaccinations. At the moment, the approach in a lot of cities is to offer significant inducements to the elderly.

So what’s the future for zero-COVID, if as you said, there is no perfect exit strategy?

If we take the case of Hong Kong, it only exited zero-COVID after the virus overran the system. So it was not an exit strategy per se, it was the natural progression of an outbreak. What is remarkable is Singapore. Yes it was a little messy process but the capacity of the leadership in Singapore, particularly Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, is truly the best kind of leadership that you can find in terms of communicating with the public. It also helps there you have a society that’s highly educated and used to this kind of messaging. That’s very difficult to do in societies that are highly polarised. There was no such strategy here in the U.S., for example. China is just too big, and the messaging typically tends to be much more authoritarian.

Here is the irony, The more vaccinated the population becomes, the more difficult it is to detect the virus, and therefore it’s more likely to spread down the road. One thing they should definitely make sure is that essential services are not interrupted [as in Shanghai]. For example, Nanchang is doing a mini-lockdown at this point and announced that every family could send one person as a representative to buy supplies. You have to trust the people!

Besides the public health concerns such as elderly deaths, what about the politics of zero-COVID? Does the holding of the Party Congress later this year, when Xi will begin a third-term, impact the decision-making in terms of an exit?

Yes, absolutely. Especially when the Health Minister has explicitly and publicly said they want to create a good, conducive environment for the Party Congress. They have laid down the red line. Therefore, we are talking about another half a year of certainly vigorous responses. This does also mean a lot of the restrictions on international traffic, for example remaining in place. And after the Party Congress, it is winter season again. It’s a very complicated situation. Ideally, you want to manage an exit in the summer, which makes it a little easier. Now, they will drag this out even further. And a lot of people are losing their patience.

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