China Brief

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

China Lets Up on Zero-COVID Policy

New measures signal a shift away from containing the disease—and into the next phase of the pandemic.

Palmer-James-foreign-policy-columnist20
Palmer-James-foreign-policy-columnist20
James Palmer
By , a deputy editor at Foreign Policy.
A man holds his release papers after leaving a government quarantine facility in Beijing on Dec. 7.
A man holds his release papers after leaving a government quarantine facility in Beijing on Dec. 7.
A man holds his release papers after leaving a government quarantine facility in Beijing on Dec. 7. Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s China Brief.

The highlights this week: China signals a major shift from COVID-19 containment to mitigation, what the policy change means for Chinese President Xi Jinping, and Apple accelerates plans to move some manufacturing out of China.

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: China signals a major shift from COVID-19 containment to mitigation, what the policy change means for Chinese President Xi Jinping, and Apple accelerates plans to move some manufacturing out of China.

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


China Effectively Abandons Zero-COVID Policy

China’s State Council announced new measures on Wednesday that effectively spell the end of the country’s zero-COVID policy. The health care apps that have dominated daily life will no longer be required in most public spaces. Mass testing will wind down, close contacts of positive COVID-19 cases will no longer be required to quarantine, and home quarantine will replace the unpopular centralized quarantine system.

This signals a switch from containment to mitigation, as the government attempts to show the public that the disease is less serious than it was. China has downgraded COVID-19’s severity as an infectious disease from Class A to Class B, alongside AIDS, severe acute respiratory syndrome, and typhoid. (Class A now includes only the bubonic plague and cholera.) Restrictions on the sale of cold and flu medicine to stop panic buying have been removed. The new measures aim to “ensure the normal operation of society and basic medical services,” the measures state.

It seems that China has given up on the goal of zero-COVID entirely after a week of easing restrictions in some cities and continuing lockdowns in others. Containment measures were barely holding anyway and have become increasingly unpopular, as the mass protests that erupted last week showed.

Although the current approach may provide mild mitigation, the super infectious omicron variant will spread fast. And with local governments adjusting their measures, the situation may be messy for a while. These new rules have considerable exemptions: Schools, nursing homes, and medical facilities can still demand recent test results. High-risk areas are still subject to lockdowns, but these must be lifted in a “timely fashion” after five days of no new cases. As most testing centers close, PCR tests may become harder to get even if they are still sometimes needed in public spaces—a problem that popped up in Beijing last weekend.

What happened to change the government’s approach? The scale of the protests after the apartment fire in Urumqi certainly had a jarring effect. (The new measures specifically include prohibitions against blocking fire exits, although it will be interesting to see if the state takes any responsibility for the deaths.) But the Chinese Communist Party was already very worried by rising cases and dire economic data. The protests probably added weight to one side of an existing argument over whether it was time to lift the measures.

Just how large will the wave of new COVID-19 cases be? China is in a better position than at the start of the pandemic. It can draw on global experience in treating COVID-19, and most of the public is vaccinated. (Just 40 percent have received a booster shot.) The omicron variant is also far less deadly than previous variants—a point highlighted by Chinese state media and medical authorities in the last two weeks. By describing omicron as “flu-like,” they hope to convince the public that the danger is genuinely lessened. Chinese President Xi Jinping himself has emphasized this message in private.

However, there is also plenty of risk. Vaccination rates among people over 80 remain low despite another official push, and Chinese vaccines offer decent defense but underperform the Western-made mRNA vaccines. One former Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention head estimates 60 percent of the population will get infected during the first wave. China’s health care system has fewer intensive care beds per capita than developed countries, and the government has acknowledged that a wave of infections could cause serious labor shortages, especially in the medical sector.

China’s abandonment of zero-COVID could follow the example of Vietnam, which ended stringent control measures last year and has seen a relatively low per capita death rate. But it could also end up like Hong Kong, which had one of the highest per capita death rates in the world in March after it failed to contain COVID-19.

Scaled up to China’s size, Vietnam’s death rate would mean around 550,000 deaths while some epidemiological estimates put China’s death toll during the first few months at between 1 and 2 million people. Regardless of the outcome, it’s likely that China will significantly downplay the death toll, but overflowing hospitals are difficult to conceal.

Here’s my very speculative scenario. COVID-19 cases will rise sharply at first, leading to a wave of deaths in nursing homes. At least one large city will have a Hong Kong-scale crisis that results in lockdowns. Media won’t cover the crisis, but images will circulate online, dealing another blow to public confidence. By the summer, COVID-19 will be seen as an endemic problem rather than a crisis. Next year, a wave will hit parts of the isolated countryside with devastating consequences because of the great discrepancy between rural and urban health care.

It’s also uncertain how the public will react. The lifting of zero-COVID has been met with jubilant reactions on social media, but fear of lockdowns—and a lack of trust in the government to keep its promises—remains. The streets of Beijing and other big cities are still largely empty. The public seems less worried about COVID-19 itself, but that could change quickly. With people emboldened by the success of the protests, any future attempts at new restrictions to prevent rapid flare-ups could spark anger.

Inevitably, China has swapped its zero-COVID problem for a new one.


What We’re Following

A weakened Xi? The end of China’s zero-COVID looks like a blow to the political strength of Xi, who seemed untouchable after the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party. Last week’s protests are a sign of failure from the top—the point of the system of social control is to stop large-scale popular movements. Trying to read into the opaque realm of the Chinese leadership is tricky, but Xi had invested so much into his zero-COVID policy that its messy ending could raise questions about his judgement among other leaders.

If that’s the case, there are two possibilities. One is a clear movement against Xi—not a coup but a procedural move against him using Leninist rules coupled with a private assurance that the security forces will back the winner. The other is that Xi’s prestige has been weakened but he will come back with a coordinated purge of anyone who questioned him, such as when former leader Mao Zedong was challenged after the failure of the Great Leap Forward and resulting mass famine.

Mongolia’s stolen coal. On Monday, protesters attempted to storm the Mongolian Government Palace in Ulaanbaatar, the capital, following allegations that officials had stolen and sold 385,000 tons of coal stored on the country’s border with China to Chinese companies. Mongolia’s economy boomed thanks to resource exports to China for a decade, but corruption meant that little of the money stayed in the country, leaving ordinary Mongolians disillusioned.

The coronavirus pandemic forced Mongolia into a painful recession, and the latest scandal will only intensify the already powerful anti-Chinese sentiment among the Mongolian public. Of course, Beijing’s crackdown on Mongolian culture and language in the Chinese region of Inner Mongolia has also made things worse.



Tech and Business

Apple speeds up departures. In a sign of growing unease among multinational companies about China’s stability, Apple is accelerating plans to move some of its manufacturing away from the country. The Zhengzhou factory that makes most of the world’s iPhones has been convulsed by protests over China’s COVID-19 policy. Increasing hostility from Washington toward Chinese investment has also made big firms nervous.

But pulling out of China is tricky, not least because it’s hard to disentangle from the supply chains established there more than 20 years. Nowhere else in the world has the mixture of scale, stability, infrastructure, and labor that China offers. Alternatives, such as Vietnam, can manage only a fraction of the load. At some point, if the United States continues to apply pressure, then the costs will inevitably pass on to consumers.

Market bounce likely. After the announcement of new COVID-19 measures, Chinese markets are expected to rebound on Thursday, having already risen on even the hope of a policy change. But that may not last, with analysts skeptical of economic recovery given the COVID-19 waves still to come. The government is betting that the growth that follows reopening will cancel out job losses as zero-COVID controls wind down. But there’s no guarantee of that or for the better quality jobs sought by a generation of unemployed young people in the cities.

One area to watch is health care, where pharmaceutical firms look set to reap a harvest from anti-COVID-19 drugs, such as Paxlovid, which China began importing in March. However, testing firms have come under government scrutiny for corruption; as the testing regime winds down, expect investigations of both officials and businesspeople.

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

Join the Conversation

Commenting on this and other recent articles is just one benefit of a Foreign Policy subscription.

Already a subscriber? .

Join the Conversation

Join the conversation on this and other recent Foreign Policy articles when you subscribe now.

Not your account?

Join the Conversation

Please follow our comment guidelines, stay on topic, and be civil, courteous, and respectful of others’ beliefs.

You are commenting as .

More from Foreign Policy

A Panzerhaubitze 2000 tank howitzer fires during a mission in Ukraine’s Donetsk region.
A Panzerhaubitze 2000 tank howitzer fires during a mission in Ukraine’s Donetsk region.

Lessons for the Next War

Twelve experts weigh in on how to prevent, deter, and—if necessary—fight the next conflict.

An illustration showing a torn Russian flag and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
An illustration showing a torn Russian flag and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

It’s High Time to Prepare for Russia’s Collapse

Not planning for the possibility of disintegration betrays a dangerous lack of imagination.

An unexploded tail section of a cluster bomb is seen in Ukraine.
An unexploded tail section of a cluster bomb is seen in Ukraine.

Turkey Is Sending Cold War-Era Cluster Bombs to Ukraine

The artillery-fired cluster munitions could be lethal to Russian troops—and Ukrainian civilians.

A joint session of Congress meets to count the Electoral College vote from the 2008 presidential election the House Chamber in the U.S. Capitol  January 8, 2009 in Washington.
A joint session of Congress meets to count the Electoral College vote from the 2008 presidential election the House Chamber in the U.S. Capitol January 8, 2009 in Washington.

Congrats, You’re a Member of Congress. Now Listen Up.

Some brief foreign-policy advice for the newest members of the U.S. legislature.