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What Comes After Zero-COVID?

As Beijing shifts away from its rigid pandemic measures, public health experts warn of a disastrous COVID-19 spike.

By , a reporter at Foreign Policy.
An epidemic control worker wears personal protective equipment in Beijing.
An epidemic control worker wears personal protective equipment in Beijing.
An epidemic control worker wears personal protective equipment as he sanitizes an area outside a local health office that was giving out medications and rapid antigen tests in Beijing on Dec. 8. Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

Welcome to today’s Morning Brief, where we’re looking at how China is bracing for surging COVID-19 cases, Russia’s release of Brittney Griner, and China and Saudi Arabia’s deepening ties.

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China Braces for Disastrous COVID-19 Wave

Welcome to today’s Morning Brief, where we’re looking at how China is bracing for surging COVID-19 cases, Russia’s release of Brittney Griner, and China and Saudi Arabia’s deepening ties.

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


China Braces for Disastrous COVID-19 Wave

China is bracing for an explosion of COVID-19 cases after shifting away from its zero-COVID policy, which has whittled away at its economy and fueled spiraling domestic discontent for three years.

During that period, Beijing funneled resources toward enforcing mass testing, mandatory quarantines, and sweeping lockdowns. But public health experts warn that authorities failed to adequately prepare for a reopening, leaving its older adult population and medical system vulnerable to looming outbreaks that will inevitably spread.

Although the Chinese public is largely vaccinated against COVID-19, vaccine hesitancy remains widespread in older communities. Among those age 80 or above, just 40 percent of people have received a booster dose, which is crucial to defending against the worst health outcomes; more than 20 percent of people older than 80 haven’t been vaccinated at all. Beijing’s vaccines also aren’t as protective as the Western-made mRNA ones, making the current situation even riskier. 

“If they don’t do things like mount and implement a proactive vaccination campaign and you open up, you are going to have a wave of infections, which are certainly going to be associated with a certain degree of severity of disease,” U.S. chief medical advisor Anthony Fauci said at a Financial Times event.

As some cities confront outbreaks, the public health system is already buckling under the pressure. In Beijing, for example, clinics are being overwhelmed by surging cases while pharmacies’ supplies of COVID-19 tests and fever medication are being depleted, the Financial Times reported

In this week’s China Brief newsletter, FP’s James Palmer considers what the next few months could look like while noting that some studies warn of a death toll that could reach between 1 and 2 million people. 

In a speculative scenario, he writes: “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.”


What We’re Following Today

Brittney Griner is freed. Russia has freed U.S. basketball star Brittney Griner in exchange for the United States’ release of Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, who has also been called the “Merchant of Death.” The Kremlin has detained Griner since February. “This is a day we’ve worked toward for a long time,” U.S. President Joe Biden said on Thursday. “We never stopped pushing for her release.”

Washington had previously proposed swapping Bout for both Griner and Paul Whelan, a former U.S. marine who was detained in 2018. U.S. officials said Moscow had “rejected each and every one of our proposals for [Whelan’s] release” as a result of the spurious espionage charges lodged against him. 

“I want to be very clear: This was not a situation where we had a choice of which American to bring home,” a senior administration official said. “It was a choice between bringing home one particular American—Brittney Griner—or bringing home none.”

Xi’s visit to Saudi Arabia. China and Saudi Arabia strengthened relations on Thursday by signing a “strategic partnership agreement” and other technology and energy deals, including one with Huawei, the Wall Street Journal reported. “The visit will carry forward our traditional friendship, and usher in a new era in China’s relations with the Arab world,” Chinese President Xi Jinping declared in an op-ed in Saudi state media.

Xi’s trip could have significant implications for the strained U.S.-Saudi relationship. “Beijing cannot replace Washington on the issue that matters most to the Saudis: their security in a rough neighborhood,” Aaron David Miller argues in Foreign Policy. “But the days of Riyadh’s monogamous marriage with Washington are probably going the way of the dodo.”


FP Live

Geopolitics dominated the world in 2022, with Russia’s war in Ukraine and competition between the United States and China impacting everything from energy to food to semiconductors. What trends from 2022 will prove enduring? How will foreign policy shape the world in 2023? 

Join FP’s Ravi Agrawal for an exclusive, two-part conversation with FP columnist and Harvard University professor Stephen M. Walt. The first part will focus on the year that was; the second will look ahead to the next 12 months. Subscribers can send in their questions in advance.


Keep an Eye On

Brutal M23 massacre. The M23 rebel group killed 131 civilians in a brutal massacre in the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s Kishishe and Bambo villages in late November, according to initial findings by the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Congo (MONUSCO) and U.N. Joint Human Rights Office. Alongside the executions, the group also committed rape, looted homes, and kidnapped at least 60 villagers.

“MONUSCO condemns in the strongest terms the unspeakable violence against civilians and calls for unrestricted access to the scene and the victims for emergency humanitarian assistance,” the United Nations said in a statement. 

Iran’s execution. Iran has hanged a protester, state media announced on Thursday, as authorities struggle to stamp out the defiant protests that have roiled the country since September. The hanging marks the first-known execution that Tehran has conducted over the demonstrations. At least 11 other people face death sentences over the unrest.


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Thursday’s Most Read

U.S. Rivals Are Facing Unrest. Is It Due to Luck or Skill? by Douglas London

Europeans Have Weapons but Aren’t Warriors by Alexis Carré

China’s Restive Middle Class Will Be Xi’s Greatest Test Yet by Howard W. French


Odds and Ends 

All South Koreans are set to become at least one year younger in official records as Seoul abandons traditional age-counting practices for international methods.

Under traditional ways of calculating what is known as the “Korean age,” all babies are automatically considered to be 1 year old when born—and then have one year added every year on Jan. 1. For conscription and school grading, birth years—regardless of month—have been used. As the Washington Post notes, “The hodgepodge of three different age-counting methods often left South Koreans confused about how old they were depending on the circumstances they are in.

“The revision is aimed at reducing unnecessary socioeconomic costs because legal and social disputes as well as confusion persist due to the different ways of calculating age,” Yoo Sang-bum of the ruling People Power Party told the National Assembly.

Christina Lu is a reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @christinafei

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