As most of the world learns to live with Covid-19, China is tethering itself to eliminating the virus over the long term — an approach that risks leaving the world’s second-biggest economy isolated for years to come.
China this month saw the contagious delta variant pop up in more than half of 31 provinces despite water-tight border controls, triggering yet another round of targeted lockdowns, travel curbs, and mass testing across the country. While the outbreak is the most widespread in China since the initial flare-up in Wuhan last year, the World Health Organization said total cases last Friday were 141 — around .01% of the new infections that day in the U.S.
The aggressive moves to tame a relatively small caseload in a country with one of the world’s highest vaccination rates show how politically invested the Communist Party has become in achieving zero Covid-19 infections. Chinese authorities are increasingly trumpeting their success in containing the virus as an ideological and moral victory over the U.S. and other nations now treating Covid-19 as endemic.
In the short term, Chinese leaders have an incentive to maintain strict controls at least through next year: They don’t want any major outbreaks derailing the Winter Olympics or clouding a once-in-five-year Party Congress at which President Xi Jinping is expected to get a third term in office. The problem, however, is the rising economic and political costs in maintaining that policy indefinitely, particularly as the virus spawns new variants that can breach restrictions more easily.
“China will have to pivot from its containment strategy, sooner or later — you can stay Covid Zero for a while, but you can’t stay Covid Zero forever, because the virus swoops in before you know it,” said Chen Zhengming, an epidemiology professor at the University of Oxford. “My worry is that they won’t actively pursue a tactic change as Covid Zero has become an entrenched mentality. Especially when you hold officials accountable, no one dares to go easy on the outbreak.”