China's zero-Covid-19 strategy and its shortcomings - SOAS China Institute

//China’s zero-Covid-19 strategy and its shortcomings

China's zero-Covid-19 strategy and its shortcomings

Wuhan (October, 2021). – Photo credit: Augustokremo (Wikimedia Commons)

By Daouda Cissé | 11 November 2021

Since the beginning of the pandemic, Chinese officials at different levels (local, provincial and central) have deemed it unnecessary to accurately report about Covid-19 related data, including the origins of the virus, even though it first reportedly erupted from Wuhan, central China. While such behaviour was triggered by the fact of receiving criticisms from the rest of the world, to question and know the origins of the virus, data transparency and availability have been major issues in China.


This piece explores China’s zero-Covid-19 strategy and its shortcomings by focusing on the lack of data transparency and socio-economic impacts.


China’s zero-Covid-19 strategy and lack of data transparency


Silencing and reprimanding Chinese scientists who first alerted about the presence of the Covid-19 virus in Wuhan did not help change the way Chinese officials handle information and data both at home and abroad, or engage with the global scientific world on global matters; including on the global public health crisis the world is facing since late 2019. In August 2021, a Chinese scientist who commented about the inefficacity of the zero-Covid strategy has been under investigation for alleged plagiarism charges.


Since the beginning of the pandemic, journalists cannot freely report about the pandemic from China. On several occasions journalists who wanted to explore details related to the pandemic from Hankou’s wet market in Wuhan (which is said to be the place where the virus spread from) have been barred by police and security staff from filming or interviewing people around the area.


The lack of collaboration with the World Health Organisation (WHO) in order to collect data and determine the true origins of the virus shows the level of secrecy and lack of transparency of Chinese officials in general, and more so about Covid-19. Such a behaviour is not new though if one knows the difficulties around the existence of reliable data, their access and collection, for any work related to China. 


During the first wave of Covid, China’s officials reported a few hundred thousand of cases. Even though the real global data for Covid cases and Covid related deaths remains questionable, so are the numbers in China with a population of 1.4 billion. 


With such a population, the deflated figures reported by Chinese officials merit particular attention to the lack of data transparency. 


At the heart of the debates about the origins of the virus and high numbers of Covid-19 cases and related deaths, particularly in Wuhan and Hubei province, China’s local and central officials continuously reported fewer cases than the real figures. Instead, a few months after the virus spread to the rest of the world and with different governments being on the panic to save the lives of their citizens, Chinese officials declared that the virus was under control within China’s borders and celebrated the end of the first wave.


Since then, they are aiming at pushing for a zero-Covid strategy. Recent outbreaks in Beijing, Zhengzhou, Nanjing, Fujian and Heilongjiang in July and August raised concerns among observers and all actors in the fight against the pandemic in China and that very strategy.


Chinese local and provincial officials are under scrutiny for their management of the pandemic and resurgence of new Covid-19 cases. For that reason, they fear repression from the central government as they may be fired from their position and face China’s controversial justice system; particularly when allegations concern charges around the Covid-19 pandemic. Several provincial and local officials across the country have already been penalized or dismissed due to new Covid-19 outbreaks or the resurgence of the delta variant in their localities.


The aim for a zero-Covid-19 strategy also comes with its socio-economic inconveniences too.


Socio-economic shortcomings


China’s zero-Covid-19 strategy comes with drastic lockdown restrictions which at times kept populations barricaded in their residencies. The rules are very strict and those who don’t abide by them are reprimanded and in some cases imprisoned. Infringing the rules and health regulations put in place by local and central officials is considered as an offence. Even though such measures could help contain the spread of the virus in different localities, they come with discomfort and constraints for people’s lives. At the beginning of the pandemic and even after, with several outbreaks across the country, people suffered food and other necessary items delivery shortages which led to protests in different parts of the country to show their discontent to government officials. With strict border restrictions in place for nearly two years, traveling to and from China has become impossible for many. To re-enter the country from a trip abroad requires long, costly and harsh quarantine periods. Furthermore, Chinese authorities have tightened passport approval and renewal.


The lack of communication and confidence about the fight against the pandemic from Chinese officials and issues related to data transparency, coupled with fear among the population, did not help ease tensions surrounding the stringent measures and rules.


The surge of the virus in Wuhan and its spread across the country revealed Chinese officials’ lack of transparency about communications related to the pandemic both at home and abroad. There is no doubt the pandemic caused economic and social crises for industries, businesses and people. Yet figures surrounding Covid-19 cases and related deaths have been minimized not to reveal public health and economic shortcomings. Such a situation has ripple effects on China’s economy as many workers lost their jobs and did not receive much support from the government to mitigate the consequences of their unemployment and business bankruptcy. The new outbreaks in July and August did not help counter the health and socio-economic crises in China. 


For the short-term, corporate and household debts are to increase as the government eyes lending from financial institutions to businesses and people as a solution. Such a short-term socio-economic solution does not contribute to lifting the burden on China’s financial institutions and the long-term consequences related to bank lending and declining credit ratings. China’s zero-Covid approach could worsen the debt situation of the country’s companies, some of which are already in financial distress. China’s zero-Covid strategy may exacerbate risks and uncertainties for businesses with further mobility restrictions due to new outbreaks.


New outbreaks with mobility restrictions in China may in the long-term cause important disruptions for manufacturing industries with production shortages for domestic consumption as well as exports. Besides production shortages, new Covid outbreaks slacken and delay shipping from the main Chinese ports that serve global markets.


Last week’s new Covid-19 outbreaks in China, which come with drastic measures (reduction of mobility between cities and provinces, confinement, travel restrictions), have brought China’s zero-Covid strategy to test once again.

Daouda Cissé is a Canada-based researcher from Senegal. He is currently a visiting scholar at the National Chengchi University, Taipei through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) – Taiwan fellowship programme.


His research explores China’s domestic and overseas political economy with a focus on Africa-China relations.

The views expressed on this blog are those of the author(s) and are not necessarily those of the SOAS China Institute.