Tested negative: China’s zero-COVID policy

Tested negative: China’s zero-COVID policy

Why is China’s zero-COVID policy so rigid? Is there any explanation other than political rationality? What obstacles will recent changes face?

What makes China’s zero-COVID policy so rigid? The arrogance of an authoritarian state, or ignorance of scientific evidence? Neither. This blog suggests that the answer could reside in the widespread precautionary attitude that exists within the Chinese population.

The Chinese government has adopted a ‘dynamic zero-COVID’ policy since the outbreak of the pandemic, describing it as a MUST and henceforth as a necessary response to contain the virus. In recent weeks, over 50000 blocks of areas have been listed ‘risky’, potentially impacting tens of millions of people.

The long-lasting ineffective control seemingly suggests the failure and unscientific nature of this policy. The approach, which is deemed unsustainable by the World Health Organization, has imposed a great burden on China’s economy (Liu, 2022). It has also contributed to certain unhumanitarian events in recent weeks, leading to protests in major cities. However, reports and messages at the recent Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (hereinafter CCP) reveal that the government is not planning to loosen its stance fundamentally.

When will China drop this policy that many consider rigid? Certain Western media deem China’s insistence on a strict response to be the result of political incentives, such as President Xi’s personal preferences. That could be true, but it is not easy to confirm. This blog offers a different perspective on the rationales behind this rigid approach which touch upon the precautious nature of the Chinese people. Besides, it will be argued that the CCP has fallen into a vicious circle of government policy making the population demand a cautious policy. This, in turn, on the one hand, makes local government authorities take stricter measures than necessary, causing violations of human rights, and on the other hand, makes it difficult for the government to change its course later.

The (pre)cautious nature of the Chinese people

Following the seminal work of Ulrich Beck on ‘Risk Society’, it has been said that the modern world generates manufactured risks which we cannot fully anticipate and predict within the current scientific framework – for example, the use of nuclear weapons or global warming (Giddens, 1999). This leads to multiple and overlapping crises of responsibility – one of the sources of the precautionary principle. According to Furedi (2009), the precautionary principle refers to a (governmental) strategy of preventing any possible risks in advance of their happening. Instead of applying a probabilistic thinking mode, it turns to possibilistic thinking.

In China’s case, the idea of the precautionary principle can be observed in its response to the pandemic. There are many supporters of the zero-COVID policy in China, arguing that long COVID syndrome has not been studied thoroughly enough. Concerns about the Chinese medical system and the low vaccination rate of the elderly also contribute to these fears. People keep asking: ‘What if…?’ Their fear of the virus and panic can be illustrated by some recent cases.

Another factor may contribute to this precautionary way of thinking: collective memory and path dependence. The pandemic is probably a tragic situation that will take many years for the Chinese people to eliminate from their collective memory. For most Chinese, the panic caused by SARS in 2003 is fresh in their memories. For this reason, the novel coronavirus, which belongs to the coronavirus family along with SARS, triggered Chinese people's vigilance almost instantly. Many Chinese people firmly believed, at least in the beginning, that the virus really could be ‘eliminated’, which is how China dealt with SARS in 2003. What is worse, government propaganda leads people to believe that China can ‘win the war against virus.’ But it has never told people what the final victory would actually look like.

The dilemma

Recently, the Chinese government has been making some important and useful adjustments to its zero-COVID policy (e.g. ending the international flight ‘circuit breaker’ policy; reducing quarantine time for international travellers). Criticism and resistance against the relaxation of such rules is visible. Rather than dictating to a repressed population, it may be that the Chinese government is being ‘held ransom’ by its own cautious population. For example, a widespread video in China shows people in a community wanting all the ‘positive’ cases sent to hospital, while an official tries to explain to the public that the virus is not fatal and that official policy allows the elderly and vulnerable to be quarantined at home.

As the above example shows, a public that has been taught to be cautious might object to the government’s adjustment to its hitherto rigid policy. An interesting, but strange, dilemma can be identified here. There are those, especially people with knowledge living in big cities, who are calling for a change to this policy in a surprisingly aggressive way. However, there are also lots of people who are still afraid of the virus and want the government to take more action.

On 30 November, the vice Prime Minister of China, Sun, held a conference stressing the importance of expert opinion without mentioning the zero-COVID policy. This is seen as a good sign that the policy will change. Later, the official propaganda presses of China released information on the low death rate from the Omicron virus. This is a highly sensitive opinion, since only a few months ago such popular science articles could easily have been blocked. This might be a sign that policymakers are switching from political rationality to scientific rationality. But will people buy it? We still need more time to find out.

To conclude, the Chinese government’s zero-COVID policy reflects the application of the precautionary principle. This could be a catalyst for launching its policies, but it is also a Pandora’s Box. One of the harmful consequences is the rigidity of the policy, even though changes and adjustments are now necessary. ‘Zero-COVID’ depends on massive testing, where ‘negative’ is the best outcome. However, before all Chinese people test negative, the policy itself has tested negative as a result of its rigidity.


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