China’s Great COVID-19 Wave Has Begun
With zero-COVID effectively over, official numbers can’t keep up with the speed of the omicron variant.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s China Brief.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s China Brief.
The highlights this week: COVID-19 spreads rapidly in Beijing and beyond after China lifts restrictive policies, militants strike a hotel popular with Chinese workers in Kabul, and after a period of relative calm, Chinese and Indian soldiers clash on their disputed border.
If you would like to receive China Brief in your inbox every Wednesday, please sign up here.
COVID-19 Crisis Goes From Zero to 100
Just one week after China effectively ended its zero-COVID policy, the virus has spread rapidly throughout Beijing and other major cities. People have shared their positive test results in droves online, while some offices are reporting that 90 percent of their staff are sick. Yet Chinese media has barely touched upon the growing COVID-19 wave.
On the Chinese evening news, COVID-19 is relegated to a brief clip assuring that everything is under control. Outbreaks are acknowledged only in terms of the scale of the government response. The new state language speaks in terms of personal health responsibility; after years of claiming credit for zero-COVID, the government doesn’t want to be saddled with the responsibility of its failure. The new line? “Be the first person responsible for your own health.”
Ironically, Beijingers are now keeping their COVID-19 mitigation measures in place as the government lifts them. The city’s streets and malls are quiet, and grocery shelves are emptying out as residents hunker down out of fear of infection.
China’s official COVID-19 case count has become detached from reality, with the government data showing that new cases continued to decline in the week after it lifted restrictions. The government has partially admitted the problem, saying that without mass testing it will no longer report so-called asymptomatic cases. (China has defined asymptomatic COVID-19 to often include mild cases with symptoms that fall short of hospitalization.)
China hasn’t yet adopted other means of tracking COVID-19 such as self-reporting, and it is likely to keep minimizing the figures, especially as deaths rise. According to the government, there have been no new deaths from COVID-19 since it relaxed restrictions—which follows the unbelievable claims of minimal deaths during this year’s Shanghai outbreak. Government health experts have acknowledged the speed of the spread as they also downplay the severity of the virus.
For now, those guessing at the numbers depend on anecdotal reports and hospital observations. There are many social media posts like this one, which reports hundreds of cases in a local community. A count of my friends and acquaintances in Beijing found that about 40 percent had tested positive in the last week, largely thanks to stockpiled home tests. In an informal online poll, more than 58 percent of Beijingers self-reported that they had tested positive.
Other large cities such as Shanghai seem to be experiencing COVID-19 spikes, though not quite on the scale of Beijing’s. As home tests run out and government testing becomes even more difficult to obtain, many Chinese are left guessing as to what’s causing their fever and coughs, especially given the other winter viruses going around.
The apparent rate of infection in China suggests the dominance of fast-spreading, relatively mild omicron variants—as well as that the system of containment was likely overwhelmed before the government officially announced major changes last week. By last Friday, Beijingers were already reporting a spate of positive tests. It’s possible the government was already seeing much higher case numbers than were made public and that giving up zero-COVID was something of a fait accompli.
China’s health care system seems to be holding up for now. There has been a sixfold increase in emergency calls and hospitals fear an onslaught, but other health care facilities are so far coping. A top Hong Kong epidemiologist who dealt with the city’s similar outbreak this year notes that this is unlikely to last, especially as staff get sick. But treatment at home seems to be the favored option, in part because of lingering COVID-19 stigma. As in Hong Kong, the places most likely to see high death rates are long-term care facilities.
The central government is likely reeling from both the political shock of the recent protests and by just how fast COVID-19 is now spreading. I doubt there is much of a plan in place yet, and so the authorities are defaulting to the norm: saying everything is fine. In fact, I expect significant government pressure to keep people at work even when sick to try to give China a much-needed GDP boost.
For now, that means minimizing reporting and attempting to ride out the COVID-19 waves with sporadic new health care measures. Vaccination is part of the toolbox. China has just announced a second round of booster shots, but it’s unlikely the boosters will reach enough people to make a significant difference in China’s death rate. Antiviral drug Paxlovid remains hard to get, while some mainlanders are booking trips to Macao to get mRNA vaccines.
The speed of the new wave means there is no going back to lockdowns and health codes. Even if the government thought it might be able to manage the public anger caused by a return to the zero-COVID policy, clear case numbers have passed the point of possible containment.
What should the world expect from China in 2023? How will Beijing manage its economy and navigate relations with Washington? The answers to these questions may shape the world next year. Join me and FP’s Ravi Agrawal for a conversation on Dec. 15 at 3 p.m. ET with two other China experts: Susan Shirk and Zongyuan Zoe Liu. Register now.
What We’re Following
Kabul hotel attack. On Monday, militants struck a hotel in Kabul popular with visiting Chinese workers and businesspeople, killing at least three people and wounding many others. The Chinese Foreign Affairs Ministry has only said five Chinese nationals were wounded. The Taliban regime, which is keen to maintain a working relationship with Beijing, said only the attackers died. In the wake of the attack, China urged its citizens to leave Afghanistan.
Terrorist attacks on Chinese targets have been relatively rare until recently. The situation is changing, especially along the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, where Baloch militants and others have attacked Chinese workers and there is a persistent kidnapping problem. Groups such as the Islamic State, which claimed responsibility for the hotel attack, stand to benefit by threatening China’s trust in the Taliban regime.
Chinese diplomats leave U.K. Six consular officials from the Chinese Consulate in Manchester, England, have left the country rather than risk facing charges for an assault against protesters outside the building two months ago. The U.K. government had asked China to waive their diplomatic immunity for the incident, which British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly described as “disgraceful.” He added that he was disappointed the six wouldn’t face justice.
The incident serves as another reminder that so-called wolf warrior diplomacy that prioritizes nationalist aggression over calm words isn’t going away any time soon. It also reinforces the dire state of U.K.-China relations.
China-India border skirmish. A clash between Chinese and Indian forces along their disputed border in the Himalayas injured at least 20 Indian soldiers but caused no deaths. The region is on high alert again, following a period of relative calm after the deadly skirmish in the Galwan Valley in June 2020. India’s media seized on the latest story with nationalist fervor, reporting that 50 Indian soldiers held off 200 Chinese soldiers as they attempted to enter India’s territory.
The confusing topography of the China-India border means that such clashes often take place when both sides believe they are on their own side of the Line of Actual Control.
FP’s Most Read This Week
• Don’t Be Afraid of a Russian Collapse by Kristi Raik
• The United States Couldn’t Stop Being Stupid if It Wanted To by Stephen M. Walt
• India’s Maddening Russia Policy Isn’t as Bad as Washington Thinks by Derek Grossman
Tech and Business
U.S enlists allies in chip war. Washington is in close talks with Tokyo and Amsterdam on enforcing semiconductor chip restrictions against China. The issue has been a priority for the Biden administration since it enacted sweeping measures against the Chinese sector in October. Japan and the Netherlands each play a major role in global semiconductor supply.
China is attempting to build a domestic industry but has been stymied by corruption, its own crackdown on the technology sector, and tough U.S. measures. The latest effort, injecting $143 billion into the sector, could fall prey to the same failures that previously foiled the so-called Big Fund investment venture.
From conversations in Washington, it seems like a remarkable number of people across the U.S. government are currently working on using U.S. law to undermine key supply chains in the Chinese technology sector. The flexing of U.S. economic might over Russia seems to have empowered the most hawkish side of the China trade debate in Washington. Despite pushback from business, both Democrats and Republicans are also likely to keep tariffs in place.
Key conference canceled, uncanceled. The Central Economic Work Conference, a key Chinese government event that sets policy for the next year, is back on after a brief cancellation due to Beijing’s COVID-19 outbreak. Other events, such as the National Bureau of Statistics’ monthly announcements, have been canceled or moved online. For the Chinese leadership, there is clearly a tussle between safety measures and wanting to project economic confidence.
However, policymakers have some tough choices ahead since the economy seems unlikely to get a much-hoped bounce until at least the first post-zero-COVID wave has passed.
James Palmer is a deputy editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @BeijingPalmer
More from Foreign Policy
Saudi-Iranian Détente Is a Wake-Up Call for America
The peace plan is a big deal—and it’s no accident that China brokered it.
The U.S.-Israel Relationship No Longer Makes Sense
If Israel and its supporters want the country to continue receiving U.S. largesse, they will need to come up with a new narrative.
Putin Is Trapped in the Sunk-Cost Fallacy of War
Moscow is grasping for meaning in a meaningless invasion.
How China’s Saudi-Iran Deal Can Serve U.S. Interests
And why there’s less to Beijing’s diplomatic breakthrough than meets the eye.
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.