While the phrase did not seem to be in Cai’s original report and government censors quickly removed the misleading quote, the huge backlash the news sparked in social media raises the question of whether China is indeed serious about pursuing zero-Covid as a long-term strategy (let’s call it “long zero-Covid”). And if so, how feasible is it — and what that means for China and the world.
As Chinese government officials have repeatedly said, a dynamic zero-Covid strategy does not seek absolute zero infection. Instead, it focuses on cutting the local transmission chain and bringing the situation under control in the shortest period once a local flareup or outbreak is detected.
With the emergence and global spread of new subvariants that can evade immunity provided by vaccination and prior infections, however, any victory against the virus under zero-Covid is short-lived.
That China continues to face the threat of being overrun by the virus justifies the application of the strategy until the end of the pandemic (which is not in sight anytime soon).
State media and top government epidemiologists nevertheless still highlight the danger of the variant, and the worst-case scenario — featuring mass die-off and collapse of hospital systems — is still defining the official narrative on the potential consequences of pivoting away from zero-Covid.
In a similar vein, China has moved to routinize pandemic control through regular PCR testing and rigorous health checks in residential communities and public places. The ability to ring fence Covid-19 infections in Shanghai and Beijing bestows confidence among the top decision makers that the Chinese state is still sufficiently resilient and resourceful to keep the virus at bay, no matter how costly and difficult it is.
Other developments also facilitate the pursuit of long zero-Covid. Despite the growing social discontent in large cities like Shanghai and Beijing, public support for the policy appears to remain strong in smaller cities and rural areas (where access to alternative information remains quite limited).
Many Chinese do not oppose zero-Covid, not only because of its promised health benefits but also because of the non-health consequences of infection (for example, being subject to stigmatization as well as strict quarantine and isolation).
Over time, the marginal cost of implementing the strategy may become more tolerable with easier access to testing facilities, steeper drops in the cost of conducting mass testing, the heavy reliance on high-tech means and social forces in monitoring people’s movements and the internalization of zero-Covid rules in the Chinese society.
The sociopolitical, economic and foreign policy impact of long zero-Covid, though, could be much more profound and enduring than the government thinks.
And with intensified misunderstanding and distrust between China and the West, the fall of the Bamboo Curtain will no longer be a distant reality.