Can China Ever Reopen?

Xi Jinping’s first and only priority is political security, making a quick reopening almost untenable.

A photograph of a man being given a nucleic acid test for COVID-19 by a health worker at a private testing site in Beijing.
Kevin Frayer / Getty

One day in January 2020, a team of experts from Beijing arrived in Wuhan, China, to investigate the origins and assess the scale of an outbreak of a mysterious virus. At least 60 people in Wuhan had already fallen ill. Troublingly, cases had begun to surface in Thailand and Japan.

The same day, Chinese President Xi Jinping departed from Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, where he had met with the country’s leaders. His bulbous jumbo jet took off from the sparsely used airport in Naypyidaw, Myanmar’s capital, and, escorted by four Burmese fighter jets, headed back to China. It landed in Beijing that evening. Xi has not left his country since.

In the 24 months since Xi returned from Myanmar, China has pursued the impossible, working to maintain zero COVID-19 infections within the country through strict lockdowns, tightly controlled borders, and the deployment of a ubiquitous digital health-code system, measures executed by legions of medical workers, community volunteers, and ordinary citizens. The pandemic has provided Chinese leadership with an opportunity to consolidate power domestically and wall itself off from its neighbors under the guise of protecting public health.

Xi, a 68-year-old who came to power in 2013, is China’s most powerful leader in decades. During his country’s long fight to contain the coronavirus, he has also been busy on other fronts. Domestically, Xi is drastically reshaping China’s business landscape, reining in the tech industry that created some of the country’s best-known companies. Nationalistic attitudes and rhetoric, particularly about America and its abject failure to handle the pandemic, have flourished. Xi’s government still questions the origins of the virus, and its information ecosystem propagates misinformation about how it is spread. Internationally, Beijing’s relations with the United States are severely strained as Joe Biden tries to rebuild alliances among nations that see China as a rising and threatening military force. Xi has hunkered down and China appears to be retreating into itself. “China’s decision to turn more inward preceded the pandemic but has been intensified by it,” Jean-Pierre Cabestan, a political-science professor at Hong Kong Baptist University, told me.

A number of policies enacted by Xi point to a leader and a country that are much more domestically focused and isolated than they were in 2013, Cabestan said. These changes include Document No. 9, a paper released that year denouncing a host of Western ideas; a “Made in China” strategy unveiled in 2015; and the enactment of a sweeping national-security law in Hong Kong in 2020. These sorts of decisions point “in the same direction: Move away from the West and attack its ideology; reduce China’s dependence upon the outside; enhance its economic and technological self-reliance,” Cabestan said. COVID erupted at “a convenient time, which has been instrumentalized to accelerate China’s polity and society’s isolation and self-protection,” he added.

As Beijing prepares to host the Winter Olympics, which begin today, China’s response to COVID outbreaks remains much the same as it was in early 2020. The playbook relies on mass testing, extensive contact tracing, comprehensive lockdowns, and international travel bans to keep the virus at bay. Those efforts have been largely successful. The country has tallied just over 139,000 confirmed symptomatic COVID cases and only 5,700 COVID deaths, according to the World Health Organization.

Exactly when and how China may move on from its policy of zero COVID is not clear. As early as June, The Wall Street Journal reported that the country would remain largely closed through 2022, a year dotted with important events. The National People’s Congress will convene early next month. The Chinese Communist Party will hold its 20th Party Congress in the fall, during which Xi, a leader with no rival and no heir apparent, will likely secure a precedent-defying third term.

Under Xi’s leadership, “the core task is political security,’’ says Sheena Chestnut Greitens, an associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin’s Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs. This, she explained to me, means “security of China’s socialist system, of the CCP [Chinese Communist Party] leadership, and of Xi Jinping. And almost anything can be defined as a security threat, including the pandemic and its possible effects on domestic stability and the security of the CCP’s hold on power.”

The government’s approach to the virus is broadly popular, though there have been pockets of discontent over the harsh measures. When residents of Xi’an were stuck inside their homes in December for more than three weeks as an outbreak flared, some complained about a lack of food and medical access. Anger spread online after a woman who was eight months pregnant was denied entry to a hospital because her most recent COVID test was a few hours too old. Her unborn baby had died by the time she was finally admitted. Nana Fu, a 30-year-old from Ruili, on the China-Myanmar border, which experienced an outbreak in the autumn, told The Atlantic that her 2-year-old son was given some 50 COVID tests over the course of a month. He developed a tic of sorts after the multitude of tests. “He just opens his mouth automatically when he sees a doctor,” she said.

In Hong Kong, China’s most global metropolis, which has for decades positioned itself as a center of finance and international law, restrictions have begun to grate on residents. Its self-promotional tagline, “Asia’s World City,” seems more inaccurate by the day as Hong Kong too pursues a zero-COVID strategy. Flight bans have caused air traffic to plummet. On January 31, just 100 passengers arrived at Hong Kong International Airport, previously one of the world’s busiest travel hubs. Tourism arrivals for last year fell more than 97 percent, according to the Hong Kong Tourism Board.

Those wishing to come or go must navigate a byzantine and often shifting system of regulations and flight bans. Yudi Soetjiptadi scrambled to find a flight back to Hong Kong from South Africa in December as the government began to close off access from countries where the more transmissible Omicron variant was being detected. He embarked on a hectic tour of Africa, leaving Cape Town for Johannesburg, then on to Nairobi, Kenya, via a transit through Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. From Nairobi, he flew to Doha, Qatar, where he departed for Hong Kong. Upon arriving in the city on December 10, Soetjiptadi, who is fully vaccinated, was sent to Penny’s Bay, a government quarantine facility near Hong Kong Disneyland that is filled with rows of shipping containers set up like dorms. Early in what was supposed to be a seven-day stay, he developed a fever; when he was tested for COVID, the result was positive. Authorities transported him to a hospital, where his fever quickly subsided. He never developed any other symptoms. However, Soetjiptadi continued to fail highly sensitive tests administered by health-care workers, two of which he needed to pass to be released. In early January, after 30 days in isolation, he was finally cleared to leave. His advice for others facing a similar situation: Stay upbeat and try to keep a cheery outlook. “Go with the flow,” he told me.

As has happened on the mainland, political security and public health in Hong Kong look to have become intertwined. “COVID has helped the implementation of the NSL [national-security law] and the reduction of public freedoms here,” Cabestan said. “Full jurisdiction and complete integration of Hong Kong into China and the GBA [Greater Bay Area] are the priorities.”

Decisions made by Hong Kong officials appear to be less rooted in science than in the need to please the bosses on the mainland by pursuing ever more dramatic medical theatrics. Dining in at restaurants is not allowed after 6 p.m., but some of the most recent outbreaks started when people met for lunch or breakfast. Malls remain open and were packed with shoppers ahead of the Lunar New Year, while beaches and outdoor playgrounds are closed. Despite evidence compiled in part by experts at one of the city’s own universities that 21-day hotel quarantines for people arriving in Hong Kong are too severe, the government kept the regulation for travelers from some 160 countries. It backfired when an outbreak was caused by a woman infected during the latter part of her hotel stay. (Officials eventually relented, announcing that starting on February 5, arrivals would need to spend only 14 days in a hotel, followed by seven days of self-monitoring.) Without investment to build larger, more permanent quarantine facilities, the existing ones in Hong Kong have begun to buckle, filling up with thousands of people and experiencing power outages and supply shortages.

Authorities culled thousands of hamsters after an infection was traced to a local pet shop. Carrie Lam, the city’s chief executive, lashed out at a hamster owner who didn’t turn over his pet, saying it had caused an outbreak. The maligned rodent, however, tested negative for the virus, clearing its name. Hong Kong has done little to encourage residents to get vaccinated or to educate people about the vaccines’ benefits, instead focusing on promoting its reengineered election system and the benefits of the draconian national-security law.

Tam Yiu-chung, the only Hong Kong representative in China’s top lawmaking body, told me that the blame for the city’s current predicament lies not with Hong Kong or the mainland, but with other countries that have failed to contain the virus. “If you ask, ‘When will we reopen to those outside countries?,’ it depends. Those countries, if they still have a lot of cases and the pandemic is very serious … it cannot be,” he told me. Tam said that while Lam’s job is to reflect and relay the sentiments of Hong Kong’s people to mainland authorities, ultimately the key decisions regarding the handling of the pandemic are being made in Beijing. Lam has repeatedly said that the priority of the Hong Kong government is to fully reopen the territory to the mainland, but she has been unable to accomplish that goal. With most of Hong Kong’s opposition figures jailed, in exile, or having retreated from public life, the government’s policies largely go unchecked.

About 65 percent of Hong Kong’s population is fully vaccinated and 13 percent have received a booster. Only 213 people have died from COVID, fewer than the 299 who died during the 2003 SARS outbreak. But, alarmingly, just about 31 percent of the population ages 80 and above has been jabbed. Zero COVID is a “fragile strategy,” Ben Cowling, the head of the epidemiology and biostatistics department at the University of Hong Kong’s School of Public Health, told me. Hong Kong, he said, has been lucky to escape without a major outbreak so far. But “even if we can get this one down to zero,” he said, “we know it is going to happen again.”

Mainland China has good reasons to stick with its current strategy, though, Sean Sylvia, an assistant health-economics professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, told me in an email. The country’s health-care system is weak and poorly resourced. China’s population density is high and immunity is lower because of lack of exposure to the virus. The Omicron variant, he wrote, provides a new test, as it makes maintaining low case numbers more challenging while at the same time increasing the potential costs of relaxing controls.

Vaccination rates are high on mainland China, about 88 percent, but mRNA vaccines are not available. The German firm BioNTech has been waiting months for approval to enter the Chinese market. (The BioNTech shot is available in Hong Kong and Macau. Though BioNTech partners with Pfizer for its distribution in most countries, its vaccine is distributed in Hong Kong and Macau through a deal with China's Fosun Pharma.) China has not developed its own mRNA jab. It is reliant on the Chinese-developed Sinopharm and Sinovac shots. These “inactivated virus” vaccines have proved to be less effective at stopping COVID deaths, according to data compiled in Singapore. A University of Hong Kong study in December found that two shots of the Sinovac vaccine did not provide a sufficient number of antibodies to protect against Omicron. Later that month, researchers in the city found that two doses and a booster of the Sinovac vaccine also didn’t produce sufficient levels of protection. They suggested that those who received the Sinovac jab should get an mRNA booster to improve protection levels. Development of a homegrown mRNA vaccine is not a sure thing, though; Germany’s CureVac failed in its much anticipated efforts to develop an mRNA vaccine.

Yanzhong Huang, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations, in Washington, D.C., told me that the Chinese authorities are asking vaccines to do the impossible. “Even the best vaccines in the world cannot prevent infection,” he said. Zoe Liu, a 22-year-old from Tianjin, in northern China, wonders if constant testing doesn’t undercut Beijing’s messaging about the positives of being vaccinated, and she is unhappy with the costs of canceled travel and medical services. “It is not just wasting the resources of our country,” she told me, “but wasting the money in my pocket.”

Huang questioned how anyone could accurately calculate the vaccination rate in China. “How would you count who is fully vaccinated?” he asked. “It doesn’t make any sense to still count those people as fully vaccinated if their antibody level becomes hardly detectable.” Ultimately, Huang said, even if China can develop and deploy a more effective jab, “without changing the mindset, even the best vaccine will be useless.”

Thus, pivoting from zero COVID to a different approach would be too risky for both the political and health systems of the country. Paramount to China’s thinking is the “protection of the CCP and its survival,” Cabestan said. The country’s inward turn—hastened by COVID and fueled by a paranoia of dangers that threaten it, difficulties with the European Union, and tensions with the U.S.—“is a strategic decision in which the objective is clear: Strengthen the CCP dictatorship.”

Tiffany Liang contributed reporting.