China’s COVID-19 Wave Reaches the Countryside
Opaque data and limited health care infrastructure raise fears of devastating outcomes in rural areas.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s China Brief.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s China Brief.
The highlights this week: China’s COVID-19 crisis reaches rural areas as the new year begins, Beijing appoints a former ambassador to the United States as foreign minister, and Brazil’s new president courts China.
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China’s COVID-19 Crisis Deepens
Another new year in China, another round of the country’s COVID-19 crisis as the virus continues to spread beyond major cities. In his New Year’s address on Dec. 31, Chinese President Xi Jinping directly acknowledged the outbreak: “We have now entered a new phase of COVID response where tough challenges remain,” he said.
Xi’s statement was sandwiched between claims about heroic struggle, but it marked a rare nod to reality when the gap between the suffering on the ground and the tone of state media seems larger than ever. Hospitals are overwhelmed in many places; one plausible estimate suggests that 9,000 people are dying a day in China. In the country’s northeast, friends report that “Have you had the virus yet?” has replaced the traditional greeting, “Have you eaten?”
China has stopped releasing accurate COVID-19 data. Even the World Health Organization (WHO), which has largely taken a mollifying approach to China’s lack of transparency, has called the Chinese government out directly. As many countries such as the United States and Australia introduce new testing demands for Chinese travelers, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said these policies were “understandable” in the “absence of comprehensive information” from China.
Experts fear that a new variant will emerge from China’s outbreak. Data from the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention shows no sign of that so far, but WHO is desperate for more information. Meanwhile, misinformation about the virus is spreading inside China, ranging from government claims that traditional Chinese medicine products can be used for treatment to full-blown conspiracy theories.
The worst of the first wave seems to have peaked in cities such as Beijing and Shanghai, where life is tentatively returning to the streets. But the countryside is already being hit, with reports of high death tolls in some villages and swamped hospitals where staff are working even while sick themselves.
A few factors could make COVID-19 still more devastating in China’s countryside. Even in normal times, health care services in rural areas are inadequate, with less than half the number of critical care beds per capita compared with urban areas and a dire personnel shortage. Although officially the rural population is younger on average, in practice young people decamp to the cities in search of work, leaving villages full of the old and the very young.
Despite repeated pushes, China’s older population is undervaccinated, in part because so many older people live in hard-to-reach areas and in part because of vaccine skepticism; they are also much more at risk of dying from COVID-19.
The Spring Festival, or Chinese New Year, on Jan. 22 may worsen the rural crisis. So-called spring migration begins about two weeks before the holiday, as migrant workers collect wages and return home to their villages to celebrate with family. That could fuel even more rapid transmission of COVID-19 in rural areas.
Many migrant workers haven’t been able to go home for three years, since the 2020 outbreak came just before the Spring Festival, and the government’s downplaying of the virus is likely to convince people that the chance to spend time together is worth it.
The wave will also delay hopes of a rural economic revival. On Dec. 24, Xi again called on young people to revitalize the countryside, but that’s very unlikely. Rural areas have little to offer young people culturally or economically. Back in the days of assigned jobs for university graduates, which continued into the 1990s, the government could dispatch people to remote areas as teachers, nurses, or doctors. But even record youth unemployment is unlikely to tempt many people into rural China, especially as COVID-19 spreads.
What We’re Following
Beijing’s new foreign minister. Qin Gang, who was China’s ambassador to the United States for about 18 months, has been appointed minister of foreign affairs, a move that had been expected for a few weeks. Foreign minister is a surprisingly weak position inside the Chinese state, which always prioritizes domestic affairs. Like other figures promoted during the Party Congress last October and in the months since, Qin is a Xi ally with little influence of his own.
But Qin’s statement in a tweet on Tuesday that he was “deeply impressed” with Americans is a sign of the attempted warming between China and the United States since Xi met U.S. President Joe Biden at the G-20 summit in Bali, Indonesia, last November. However, China continues to run anti-American propaganda at home, and the leadership has kept so-called wolf warrior diplomats in their positions, while Washington remains convinced that Beijing is its main adversary.
Still, it’s a good sign that the two sides of the new cold war are prepared to talk to each other civilly, if nothing else.
Lula courts China. Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, newly inaugurated for a second time, is continuing his pro-China approach to foreign affairs. He has placed Beijing high on the agenda for his first foreign trips—to warm reception from Xi. Despite his anti-communist rhetoric, Lula’s predecessor, Jair Bolsonaro, had also turned toward Beijing amid diplomatic isolation as a result of his far-right policies. Lula seems to be looking to detach Brazil from emerging geopolitical blocs, reviving the spirit of Cold War-era nonalignment.
Prominent COVID-19 deaths? Chinese authorities’ reluctance to acknowledge deaths from COVID-19—the official figure since the end of the zero-COVID policy on Dec. 7 stands at 12—has led to a rash of speculation as celebrities, especially older ones, die of unspecified illnesses. In some cases, family have confirmed online that their relatives died from COVID-19. Whatever credibility the government had built through its initial success with zero-COVID is now gone, thanks to the gulf between apparent losses and official figures.
At some point, Beijing could change tack to regain some credibility, perhaps by partially acknowledging the scale of death after the worst of the crisis has passed. I suspect the authorities currently have no idea how to handle the abrupt shift without making Xi look weak or inconsistent.
FP’s Most Read This Week
• Why Germany Has Learned the Wrong Lessons From History by Edward Lucas
• 10 Conflicts to Watch in 2023 by Comfort Ero and Richard Atwood
• 5 Ways the U.S.-China Cold War Will Be Different From the Last One by Jo Inge Bekkevold
Tech and Business
Bad economic data piles up. China’s manufacturing activity decreased for a fifth consecutive month in December, adding to a string of dire economic indicators from labor to spending. This picture seems to have played an important role in persuading Xi to end the zero-COVID policy, but it also cast doubt on his implication during the New Year’s address that the economy grew by 4.4 percent in 2022. The Spring Festival, traditionally a big spending period, will be an important test of consumer confidence.
After three years of zero-COVID, there is undoubtedly pent-up demand for everything from spa days to restaurants, but the new COVID-19 wave has kept people indoors out of fear for the last month. I expect that any major growth won’t come until this first wave has diminished, but even then, consumers will remain risk-averse, not least because individual incomes suffered during the last three years. Rebuilding savings is more likely than a full-scale boom.
Canada bans foreign property buyers. Last Sunday, a two-year ban on most foreigners acquiring property came into effect in Canada, with exceptions for refugees and students. Chinese investment is one of the new measure’s main targets; it has been blamed for driving up housing prices in cities such as Vancouver, where Chinese buyers made up one-third of new property buyers.
The prominent coverage given to the luxury home of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou while she was on bail in China drew extra attention to the issue. If the Canadian measures succeed, other countries with high levels of Chinese property investment and with an increasing distrust of Beijing—such as Australia and the United Kingdom—might follow suit.
James Palmer is a deputy editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @BeijingPalmer
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