China Brief

A weekly digest of the stories you should be following in China, plus exclusive analysis. Delivered Wednesday.

How Will China Respond to the Omicron Variant?

Despite few recorded cases, Beijing is likely to tighten restrictions—especially ahead of the Winter Olympics.

Palmer-James-foreign-policy-columnist20
Palmer-James-foreign-policy-columnist20
James Palmer
By , a deputy editor at Foreign Policy.
A health worker takes a swab sample at a makeshift COVID-19 testing center.
A health worker takes a swab sample at a makeshift COVID-19 testing center.
A health worker takes a swab sample at a makeshift COVID-19 testing center in Ningbo, China, on Dec. 7. STR/AFP via Getty Images

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s China Brief.

The highlights this week: The rise of the omicron variant will likely prompt tighter restrictions throughout China, Hong Kong holds its first elections under the 2020 national security law, and Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai resurfaces with a public statement.

If you would like to receive China Brief in your inbox every Wednesday, please sign up here.

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s China Brief.

The highlights this week: The rise of the omicron variant will likely prompt tighter restrictions throughout China, Hong Kong holds its first elections under the 2020 national security law, and Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai resurfaces with a public statement.

If you would like to receive China Brief in your inbox every Wednesday, please sign up here.


Omicron Variant Prompts Anxiety in Beijing

The arrival of the highly contagious omicron COVID-19 variant has case numbers spiking around the world—but there is no sign the variant has a strong foothold in China yet. Authorities have detected six imported omicron cases across three cities since the first local case was reported on Dec. 13. But these cases were mostly among recent arrivals who were still quarantining. (Two infections were passed within a traveler’s building during the home quarantine period.)

But concerns about omicron in China remain high, prompting another increase in the already tough measures used to maintain its zero-COVID-19 policy. Omicron is far more transmissible than previous variants of the virus, though it’s not yet clear to what extent.

Although it is also possible omicron is generally milder, the Chinese public would be especially exposed. Vaccination rates in China are more than 80 percent, but Chinese vaccines perform poorly against variants. Only around 10 percent of the population has had a booster shot. Before omicron emerged, a recent study estimated if COVID-19 spread within China now, it could result in as many as 22,000 severe cases a day.

China’s new measures have so far focused on strengthening the quarantine process, especially procedures for personnel who interact with arrivals. But it’s likely authorities will also lengthen the quarantine period, probably by increasing the initial centralized quarantine. Quarantines have varied by region, but they could move toward a strategy as extreme as Shenyang’s: 28 days in hotel quarantine, followed by 28 days in home isolation.

But the most stressful shift for Chinese citizens may be heightened internal quarantines and city-wide lockdowns as omicron cases slip the net. There is already a ring of protection around the political leadership in Beijing that will tighten for the Winter Olympics in February 2022. Officials will also fret about the upcoming Spring Festival (also known as the Chinese New Year) on Feb. 1, which is usually a major week for travel. The initial COVID-19 outbreak just before the holiday in 2020 left millions of people stranded away from home for weeks, and 2021 saw travel slashed to one-quarter of previous years.

China’s zero-COVID-19 measures have come at a heavy cost. The lack of personal contacts has accelerated the erosion of relations with the United States. Tightening restrictions in response to omicron will likely make exchanges with the rest of the world even harder, slowing an already burdened economy. But if the United States and other countries see death rates soar, the Chinese government will see maintaining the policy indefinitely as justified.


What We’re Following

Hong Kong’s sham elections. On Dec. 19, Hong Kong held the first elections to its Legislative Council since the draconian national security law came into force last year. The law has effectively dismantled the city’s political opposition. The last round of free elections for local municipal councils in 2019 were an embarrassing defeat for the pro-Beijing side. The national security law was introduced in part to make sure it couldn’t be repeated.

Many of Hong Kong’s opposition leaders are now in jail or exiled, and others chose not to contest the elections out of fear the national security law would be used against them or their supporters. Legislative Council elections were never truly democratic. Only 50 of 90 seats were directly elected while the rest were a mixture of special interest votes and direct appointments. Direct elections now make up just 20 seats.

Hong Kongers protested the best they could: Voter turnout was a record low 30.2 percent, compared to 58 percent in the last election in 2016. That came despite government efforts to boost the vote, including arresting people accused of discouraging voting.

Peng Shuai’s supposed retraction. In tennis player Peng Shuai’s first public statement since she accused retired Chinese leader Zhang Gaoli of sexual assault on Nov. 2, she said she never made the accusation and was “misinterpreted.” The statement has been met with widespread skepticism from media outside China given the long time gap, Beijing’s record of intimidation and torture to force public statements, and Peng’s disappearance from the public eye.

The Women’s Tennis Association, which has led the way in calling for Peng’s safety to be guaranteed and suspended its matches in China, has called for further investigation. The Peng case has also prompted a new propaganda push by China on Western social media, something that has become a major part of government work. But despite all the spending, China’s public relations campaign has been largely unsuccessful.

Meanwhile, the Peng affair seems to have deepened the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s conviction of the dangers of feminism and the #MeToo movement. A bizarre Global Times editorial this week by a prominent male professor described gender equality as having to be “advanced in an orderly manner under the leadership of the government.” Other pieces alleged that #MeToo was a Western-sponsored plot.

Hu Xijin leaves the Global Times. Nationalist provocateur Hu Xijin, founder and chief editorial writer of the Global Times, a CCP-owned tabloid, has left his post as editor. Hu has become prominent on foreign social media platforms, where he defends the CCP’s actions and makes provocative statements about other countries. Fan Zhengwei, currently commentary editor for the People’s Daily, which owns the Global Times, will replace him.

This long profile in the Guardian by journalist Han Zhang gives a sense of Hu’s significance.


Tech and Business

Scientist convicted under China Initiative. The beleaguered China Initiative, a U.S. Justice Department program started in 2018 to counter Chinese scientific espionage, resulted in a significant conviction—but not of a spy. Prominent Harvard chemist Charles Lieber, 62, was convicted of making false statements on government documents—making him emblematic of an initiative that has increasingly focused on so-called research integrity cases rather than espionage.

Cases like Lieber’s have generally involved researchers double-dipping—taking Chinese government research grants and not declaring them to U.S. authorities, which is legally required when they apply for federal government grants. Although this is a problem, it’s not spying. Lieber, who has late-stage cancer, seems unlikely to receive serious jail time, but the charges carry a potential five-year sentence and up to a $250,000 fine.

Other China Initiative cases have fallen apart, most prominently that of nanotechnology expert Anming Hu, in which the government attempted a fraud prosecution based on shoddy evidence after its initial espionage charges proved false. The case has caused critics of the program, such as legal expert Margaret Lewis, to call for an end to the initiative altogether.

Evergrande 2.0. The Chinese government has eased restrictions on the property sector, but the crumbling of debt-ridden companies, such as China’s Evergrande Group, is still shaking markets. A move by recession-hit Heilongjiang province to boost the sector sparked temporary recovery, which slumped again after reports of the decision were deleted from government websites. It’s not a surprise that authorities are kicking perennial real estate problems down the road yet again, but the crisis’s extent may end up forcing action anyway.

Evergrande’s collapse is being as carefully managed as possible by the government, but another company is now on the radar: Shimao Property Holdings. Shimao is the 13th-largest developer in the country and seemed to be in relatively good shape. But the firm proved to be a lot more vulnerable than many observers thought: Unexpected worries over its ability to handle debt prompted sharp sell-offs and downgraded its credit rating.

James Palmer is a deputy editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @BeijingPalmer

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