Countries are reopening borders. But China isn't ready to live with the coronavirus.

Countries are reopening borders. But China isn't ready to live with the coronavirus.
·6 min read

China is leaving nothing to chance to prevent a coronavirus outbreak during the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics this February.

A handbook released Monday describes how athletes will be confined to a "closed loop" of hotels, venues and designated buses, shut off from the rest of the country to a degree far beyond measures adopted during the Tokyo Summer Games.

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To enter the bubble, participants need to either be vaccinated or do 21 days of quarantine. Once inside, swab tests are conducted daily. There is an app to ensure "responsibility from start to finish," where anyone involved in the Games must report their temperature and test results from 14 days before arrival to two weeks after leaving China.

As the second anniversary of the coronavirus's discovery in Wuhan approaches, China has shown no sign of abandoning its efforts to eliminate infections, even as nations like Singapore and Australia that once shared a similar approach begin to open borders and shift toward mitigation of outbreaks now that they have achieved high vaccination rates.

For Beijing, the experience of other nations may prove more of a cautionary tale than an example to follow. "The Chinese government is keeping a close eye on what is happening overseas to work out whether giving up a 'zero covid' policy requires accepting a spike in cases," said Huang Yanzhong, a senior fellow for global public health at the Council on Foreign Relations. "That prospect is not acceptable for China."

China is partially a victim of its own success, because it has built so much support for its elimination policy that no community spread is now expected. Even a limited border opening could be unpopular if it causes a jump in cases, Huang said.

Any decision to end "zero covid" is politically laden for President Xi Jinping as he prepares for a crucial twice-per-decade political meeting in late 2022, when he is expected to break with the precedent of his immediate predecessors to stay on for a third term in office.

State media has highlighted the Chinese Communist Party's ability to halt transmission of the coronavirus as evidence of the superiority of the country's political system and the direction it has taken under Xi.

That emphasis on demonstrating the capacity of the Chinese party-state means that some epidemiologist recommendations to change tack have been shouted down by those who accuse them of failing to recognize the advantages of China's approach.

When Shao Yiming, a researcher at China's Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said in a recent interview that China should "draw on the experience of countries that opened up" and consider ending its elimination approach in the long run, he was attacked by conservative commentators.

Jiang Yu, a scholar affiliated with the State Council, accused him of being "extremely misleading," saying that China's approach was "at this time the only route to overall disease prevention in the world."

Even with strict border controls, China continues to face challenges to its containment strategy. On Sunday, the National Health Commission warned that the country's third widespread outbreak of the more-transmissible delta variant in recent months would probably continue to spread due to the onset of winter.

Although the outbreak remains relatively small - 50 new locally transmitted cases reported on Wednesday brought the total to just over 200 - the cases have been found in at least 11 provinces, mostly among tour groups that traveled during the National Day holiday.

The response has been swift and forceful. Authorities liken the approach to a "circuit breaker" that is tripped whenever any cases are discovered. Localities then shut down public venues and suspend travel in at-risk areas, requiring two negative swab tests before tourists can leave.

To deter future outbreaks, those deemed responsible are punished. On Tuesday, the Communist Party boss of Ejin Banner, a border town near Mongolia where the latest outbreak is thought to have begun, was removed from his post due to poor prevention and control. Police in Beijing announced a criminal investigation into a couple who "violated epidemic control" by hosting a game of mah-jongg despite having sore throats.

During the latest outbreak, in contrast to another relapse in August, there has been little public debate about learning to accept a number of infections.

As China's vaccination rates pick up after a slow start, some epidemiologists began to ask whether it was time to abandon the "zero covid" approach. In July, Zhang Wenhong, a leading Chinese infectious-disease expert with a reputation as a straight talker, was among the first to suggest a need to eventually "coexist with the virus."

His argument was met with an angry backlash and a smear campaign, in which critics accused him of plagiarizing his doctoral dissertation. (An investigation by Fudan University, Zhang's alma mater, found no evidence of academic misconduct.)

Since the outcry, Zhang has stressed that China must for now continue "dynamic" elimination of the virus, by honing the targeted whack-a-mole approach where authorities remain ready to clamp down forcefully whenever infections appear.

Health officials maintain, however, that discussions about when to open borders are ongoing. Gao Fu, head of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said this month that the country may ease border controls in early 2022 after more than 85% of the population have been immunized.

But there have been no indications of an imminent relaxation. In Hong Kong, for example, Chief Executive Carrie Lam on Tuesday said that the territory would tighten international travel restrictions, despite lobbying from businesses.

The Asia Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association of international banks and asset managers said in a letter this week that the territory needed a "clear and meaningful exit strategy" or it would risk losing its status as a financial hub.

The Chinese leadership's emphasis on securing its borders has also sparked anger in southwestern Yunnan province. In Ruili, a town on the border with Myanmar, residents took to social media this week to protest being put under lockdown five times this year.

Some shared videos of basic quarantine facilities with concrete floors and steel bunk beds. Small-business owners complained that they had been unable to work. In one widely shared post on Twitter-like Weibo, one user from the town said they were being treated like "livestock."

But even critics tended to blame the local government without questioning the county's overall containment strategy and border controls. "We understand that Ruili is in a special location, but after 10 negative swab tests, can't you give us a way forward?" one user wrote on Weibo.

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The Washington Post's Pei Lin Wu in Taipei contributed to this report.

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