The Collapse Of China’s Zero-COVID Policy – Analysis


By Manoj Joshi

Notwithstanding the information blackout by the government, there should be no doubt that China is suffering grievously from the COVID tsunami. Reports suggest that even after its alleged peak, Beijing and Shanghai are reporting overflowing hospitals. As to the death toll, it is difficult to determine since China has arbitrarily decided to attribute COVID to only those who die of respiratory failure and pneumonia. As of now, it has only acknowledged a handful of COVID deaths.

Beijing had little choice in making a U-turn in its “Zero-COVID” policy in mid-December when two things became clear. First, it was undermining the already slowing economy by cutting exports and retail sales. Second, and more importantly, it was generating social tensions that had begun to lead to unprecedented protests. Cities like Shanghai saw months of lockdown in 2022.

After controlling the outbreak in Wuhan through a drastic lockdown in early 2020, China shut itself from the world in an effort to keep COVID out. The strategy of Zero-COVID, associated with draconian lockdowns, aggressive contact tracing, forced hospitalisation and isolation prevented mass infections and deaths and were lauded as proof of the superiority of the Chinese way of doing things.

Within the tightly controlled bubble, China’s economy recovered within a year and life was largely normal even as the pandemic was wreaking havoc around the world. But somewhere, the policy lost its way and as around the world, populations exposed to the virus developed immunity through vaccination and infection, China found itself in a trap.

While the policy prevented mass deaths and illness, it also ensured that only about 1 million people of 0.07 percent of the population got COVID, leaving the rest with little natural immunity, despite the official figure of 90 percent vaccination. They were, therefore, vulnerable to the highly infectious Omicron variant which began to spread, resulting in drastic lockdowns such as the two-month one in Shanghai in May 2022. That was the time when the WHO’s Director General warned China that its Zero-COVID approach was unsustainable, but he was told that he should get the right information and “refrain from making irresponsible remarks”.

The Chinese narrative is that under the leadership of the Communist Party and Xi Jinping, the commander-in-chief of the “people’s war” against the virus, China fought the pandemic in an “assiduous and efficacious” manner for three years. Now, it had shifted “from preventing infections to medical treatment” that required “a series of optimization and adjustment measures”. The result had been a quick return to normalcy. It was just the western media which was conjuring up the dark scenario. 

The current situation

Today, while there are scenes of normalcy in cities, there are also reports of bodies being stacked in morgues and mass cremations. China’s National Health Commission no longer publishes daily tallies of cases and deaths and said fewer than a dozen people had died of COVID since the beginning of November.

At the same time, the Chinese authorities have altered the way they count the COVID dead as only those who die from respiratory failure and pneumonia. Last Wednesday, in a briefing, the World Health Organisation said that China needed to be more transparent about the Omicron wave. Its Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus urged the Chinese government to provide rapid and reliable data on hospitalisations and deaths.

No matter what the officials say, the fact is that millions have been infected and thousands have died and many more will. But there is little by way of official information. Based on official sources, the Wall Street Journal reported that nearly 250 million people had been infected between 1-20 December. This included half of Beijing’s 22 million population. According to Global Times, the peak infection has already been reached in several major cities like Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou, and in medium cities and rural areas the peak could come by the third week of January.

So, we have a situation where as of 8 January Chinese borders will fully open and COVID quarantines will no longer occur, though inbound travelers will have to show a negative RT-PCR test taken within 48 hours prior to departure. But that doesn’t mean that things will easily stabilise, especially since the about-face on COVID was abrupt and ill-prepared.

Chinese authorities say that they are now shifting their emphasis from preventing infections to protecting people’s health and preventing severe cases. To this end, they say that they have adopted a “Chinese approach where both Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and Western medicine are used.” 

Xi’s stakes

China’s Zero-COVID policy and later its abrupt withdrawal are the handiwork of the Communist Party of China led by Xi and they must live with its consequences. This was acknowledged by Xi himself in a speech during an inspection tour to Wuhan in June, that China’s response to the pandemic had protected people’s lives. Had China adopted the “herd immunity” policy or taken a hands off approach the country would have suffered catastrophic consequences. He said that the Zero-COVID policy had been formulated by the Communist Party of China (CPC) and even if there was some impact on the economy, “we will not put the people’s lives and health in harm’s way, and we must protect the elderly and the children in particular”.

By April 2022, some 400 million Chinese people had been in some form of a lockdown to battle the now fast-spreading Omicron variant. There were already signs of both the negative economic impact as well as the social unrest triggered by the draconian lockdowns which now also had Shanghai in its grip. In a visit to Hainan, Xi had urgedthe people to fight the “paralyzing thoughts” and “war weariness”. He said that prevention and control work could not be relaxed and raised the old party slogan “Persistence is victory”.

Despite evidence of its negative economic impact and the rising social unrest, Xi maintained his position during the October 2022 CPC Congress that re-elected him General Secretary. Indian a speech Xi said that the Zero COVID policy was a “people’s war to stop the spread of the virus”. He justified the hard-line approach on grounds that “we have to put the people and their lives above all else.”

However, there were signs of some wavering. On 10 November , shortly after the Congress, the Politburo Standing Committee, chaired by Xi Jinping declared that the country would stick to the Zero-COVID approach, but adopt a more targeted approach and expected the tough measures to remain in place till spring of 2023.

But by the end of November, even this targeted approach was not working against the Omicron variant. Mass unrest had broken out after an incident in Xinjiang when a fire in the Han section of Urumqi led to several deaths in an area under lockdown. The city had already been under a three-month lockdown and now protests spread to Nanjing, Wuhan, Chengdu, Xian, Shanghai, and even Beijing with some protesters calling for freedom and democracy and a few even calling for Xi to step down.

At this point, Xi went silent as the CPC mulled over the issues and by mid-December the CPC made an abrupt about turn.  Instructions were issued to end the regime of compulsory mass testing and lockdowns and other rules. Where they were talking of the dangers of the virus, they now began speaking of its relatively benign nature.

After two months of silence, President Xi finally addressed the issue in his New Year message, where he acknowledged that the country had “ entered a new phase of COVID response where tough challenges remain.” He said that “following a science based and targeted approach, we have adapted our COVIDresponse in the light of the evolving situation…”

Clearly, China’s obduracy in persisting with its Zero-COVID approach cannot be separated from the political developments in China where Xi’s supremacy has curtailed internal policy debates and led to the sidelining and censoring of contrary opinions.


Many countries are concerned about the outbreak in China. They are worried that with the lifting of controls and the reopening of borders, there could be an influx of Chinese travelers. These concerns have been accentuated by worries that some as yet unknown variant of the virus may emerge from the mass outbreak in China and be carried to other countries. For this reasons, countries like India, the United States (US), Canada, Japan, and South Korea are insisting on testing requirements on passengers from there.

At the same time, the WHO has been demanding greater transparency from Beijing in the sharing of data relating to the outbreak. According to Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO’s COVID-19 technical lead, the reason why the world wants China to be more forthcoming is that they need to look at the viruses at play in China “mutation by mutation” so as to track possible new variants that may be circulating, not only in China but also around the world.

At this stage, it is difficult to forecast the political and economic consequences of the collapse of the Zero-COVID policy. The current chaotic situation is itself is a testimony to the failure of Xi and the CPC to anticipate the need for reversing course and doing a better job in managing the change.

It is possible that Chinese economy will undergo a short, sharp disruption and then stabilise. The death toll, too, is likely to be manageable since with its obsession with secrecy, Beijing is not likely to ever reveal the real death toll. The opening up of China after three closed years could actually trigger an economic upturn which will have consequences for the world.

The CPC hopes that that will help people to forget their Zero-COVID trauma, but there could be lasting political consequences given the manner in which it has handled the pandemic, beginning with its outbreak in Wuhan in 2020, the Zero-COVID lockdowns and now the abrupt about turn. This will directly affect not just the CPC, but its General Secretary Xi Jinping’s credibility. Having been projected as the infallible leader of an infallible party, he and the CPC system have been weighed and found wanting.

Observer Research Foundation

ORF was established on 5 September 1990 as a private, not for profit, ’think tank’ to influence public policy formulation. The Foundation brought together, for the first time, leading Indian economists and policymakers to present An Agenda for Economic Reforms in India. The idea was to help develop a consensus in favour of economic reforms.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *