A An easing of some COVID-19 control measures, including shorter quarantine requirements, in China on Friday was sent stocks soar. The message of the changes have added fuel to speculation in recent weeks that China may soon abandon its zero-Covid policies that have battered the economy and kept the country largely shut off from the rest of the world for more than two years.
But some experts believe the news may actually be a sign that China plans to maintain its zero-COVID approach for the foreseeable future, rather than phase it out.
“These policy adjustments look more like efforts to maintain zero COVID,” Yangzhong Huang, senior fellow for global health at the Council on International Relations, told TIME. That’s partly because the incentive structure hasn’t changed: “Local governments are still held accountable for the COVID situations in their jurisdictions,” he says, “and there’s no credible penalty for local government overreach.”
The measures announced on Friday – which will make it easier to enter the country – include reducing the time travelers must spend in a central quarantine facility from five to seven days. The “circuit breaker” rule, which triggers a stop on a flight’s route if too many passengers test positive on arrival, was also lifted.
However, suggestions that zero COVID is about to disappear, experts suggest, are unfounded and may be due to wishful thinking as well as the relative lack of accurate information coming out of China. They point out that what is happening at a site in Guangzhou, where the epicenter of the virus has shifted, shows that zero COVID is likely here to stay.
How China’s pandemic policies stand out
Over the past year, other countries have taken steps to dismantle their COVID-19 policies. Many western countries have decided I live with the virusand the stay-at-home measures that were in place at the beginning of the pandemic are long gone, as are most masking and quarantine requirements.
But China continued to use lockdowns to try to eradicate virus cases. In August, tens of thousands of Chinese tourists were stranded on the resort island of Sanya after a lockdown was imposed. Early last month, residents of far western Xinjiang were banned from leaving following a virus outbreak there and almost all flights in and out of the region were cancelled. When Wuhan reported about 20 new infections several weeks ago, authorities ordered more than 800,000 people in one area to stay at home. As of late October, 28 Chinese cities were implementing some form of lockdown measures, affecting more than 200 million people, analysts at financial services firm Nomura said Reuters.
China currently has the strictest containment measures in the world, according to Oxford University researchers who have developed index based on thirteen indicators: school closures, workplace closures, cancellations of public events, restrictions on public gatherings, closures of public transportation, stay-at-home requirements, public information campaigns, restrictions on internal movements, international travel controls, politics for testing, contact tracing rate, person coverage and vaccine policy.
Rumors of recreation scalded by the reality of the field
Some observers have speculated that the Chinese president may begin to loosen measures to combat COVID-19 after securing precedent breaking third term in October, hopes shared by at least some Chinese residents. In early November, Hong Kong stocks jumped after a social media buzz based on an unauthenticated post that Chinese officials were discussing reversing some of the country’s draconian zero-Covid policies (many of the Hong Kong-listed stocks are of mainland companies). The rally was further supported when Reuters reported that a former Chinese disease control official told a banking conference that China would make “big changes” to its COVID policies in the next few months.
This is despite Chinese officials dismissing such rumours. Asked at a press conference earlier this month if there would be a change in policy in the near future, disease control official Hu Xiang said China’s measures were “absolutely correct, as well as the most economical and effective.” She said China “must adhere to the principle of putting people and life first and the broader strategy of preventing foreign imports and domestic rebounds.”
Proof that zero COVID isn’t going away anytime soon is currently on display in Guangzhou, a manufacturing hub of 13 million people in southern China. Last week, local authorities ordered residents of areas with a population of almost 5 million people to stay at home until at least Sunday, according to Associated Press. Public transport and schools were suspended across the city and thousands of flights were cancelled.
Barriers form a security checkpoint in the Haizhu district of Guangzhou in south China’s Guangdong province, Friday, Nov. 11, 2022. As the country reported 10,729 new cases of COVID on Friday, more than 5 million people were under quarantine in the southern the manufacturing center of Guangzhou and the western megacity of Chongqing.
Taylor Loeb, senior analyst at consultancy Trivium China, says the response to the outbreak in Guangzhou shows that little has changed regarding Beijing’s zero-covid policies, which have severely disrupted life in China and damaged the economy for much of since the past few years, when authorities have imposed strict lockdowns and mass testing to quell infections. “What we’re seeing in Guangzhou is reminiscent of what we’ve seen elsewhere in the last two and a half years,” says Loeb.
“Relying on the same playbook in response to the outbreak,” Huang says, “suggests that Beijing has no plans to abandon the zero-covid mentality anytime soon.”
Why do some people believe zero Covid is going away?
Loeb says rumors of a reopening may be gaining ground because there have been so many negative catalysts for markets in recent years –crackdown on technology and private education, deterioration of relations with the West, increased consolidation of power around Xi. “The likelihood of any of these trends reversing is minimal. The policy against COVID, on the other hand, will change course someday. It’s just not clear when. The market is looking for something positive from China,” he says.
He adds that the information vacuum doesn’t help the problem. It has become increasingly difficult for many Western media outlets to report from the continent, and many foreign journalists have left the country. “The desire for a positive catalyst mixed with a shaky information ecosystem creates the perfect environment for rumors to spread,” he says.
The social media post in early November that sparked a market spike worth hundreds of millions of dollars stemmed from an unverified post on WeChat. He claimed, according to Bloomberg Newsthat China’s fourth-highest-ranking official Wang Huning held a meeting with experts on COVID-19 and that they discussed “accelerating a conditional opening plan, with the goal of substantially opening by March next year.”
Will China ever get rid of zero COVID?
It appears that China’s strict anti-virus measures will remain in place for the foreseeable future. “There will be small adjustments, as there have been in the last few months,” says Loeb, “but so far there’s just no indication of a significant easing of policy anytime soon.”
Huang says Xi could be forced to abandon zero-covid if local government officials no longer have the fiscal capacity or public support to sustain the implementation of the policies. “I expect that to happen in the next year,” he says.
Videos of protests against local authorities are circulating on social networks. The death of a 3-year-old boy earlier this month sparked public outrage; his father had claimed on social media that COVID workers had prevented him from leaving their compound to seek treatment for his son after a suspected gas leak.
But the measures announced on Friday, which authorities say are a refinement, not a relaxation, of rules “will reduce excess in [zero-COVID] policy implementation,” Huang says, which could make sustained implementation more feasible.
As for the possibility of a fundamental shift in the zero-covid-19 approach, one sign Loeb says he’ll be watching for is any change in the way Chinese leaders talk about the severity of COVID.
However, this may not happen soon, especially in the coming winter months, as infections may increase. Beijing, Chongqing, Guangzhou and Zhengzhou reported record cases of COVID-19 on Monday.
But whenever that happens, Loeb adds that several years of zero COVID can make a quick turnaround difficult. “It’s not even clear that living with the virus is feasible in China, given how effective Beijing’s messaging is about the severity of COVID,” he says. “Much of the population has already internalized that message.”
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