The country where the coronavirus pandemic began is also the only one in the world still trying to completely eradicate the virus within its borders. Officials have repeatedly dismissed the idea of living with the virus, citing China’s large population and their success in containment so far — even as the country has continued to record sporadic outbreaks, triggering mass testing and strict lockdowns.
“Every locality should firmly adhere to the policy of ‘Defend externally against importation, defend internally against rebound,’” Mi Feng, a spokesperson for the National Health Commission, said at a news conference Sunday. “The current control measures cannot be relaxed.”
China has continued to record local cases — about 130 in recent days, after a spate of cases linked to domestic tourists. Parts of Beijing, Inner Mongolia and Gansu province are under lockdown. Schools and businesses in those areas of Beijing are closed, and organizers of the Beijing Marathon, which had been planned for Oct 31, announced Sunday that it would be indefinitely postponed.
China’s tough stance on loosening COVID restrictions is possible in part because of China’s huge domestic consumer base, which has helped to keep retail spending afloat, and because of the ruling Communist Party’s tight grip on power. The authorities can implement lockdowns and mandate multiple rounds of testing with astonishing efficiency.
In addition, many Chinese are satisfied with the government’s approach. Domestic travel has surged in areas with no cases, and the country’s low death rate — it has officially recorded fewer than 5,000 deaths — has become a source of nationalistic pride, especially at a time when China’s relations with many other countries are growing increasingly fraught.
Xi Jinping, China’s leader, has repeatedly pointed to China’s success in containment as proof of the superiority of its governance model. When Zhang Wenhong, a prominent virus expert, suggested this past summer that China learn to live with the virus, he was attacked viciously online as a lackey of foreigners.
There is a clear incentive for China to remain closed off, at least in the short term: With Beijing set to host the Winter Olympics in February, officials have acknowledged that they are under pressure to keep cases under control.
Still, the question of sustainability looms. China’s economic growth is slowing. The country’s diplomatic efforts may also suffer from its long isolation; Xi has not left China or received foreign visitors since early 2020, even as other world leaders prepare to gather in Rome for a Group of 20 summit meeting and in Glasgow, Scotland, for climate talks.
Some officials have started to tentatively broach the idea of loosening restrictions, though without any timelines or firm commitments. Zhong Nanshan, one of the country’s most prominent doctors, told a Chinese magazine this month that China could begin opening up when vaccination rates had exceeded 85%, a goal that could potentially be reached this year.
But, he added, there was another caveat: Other countries would also need to get cases under control.
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