China is softening its zero-covid approach

Two years into China’s stringent zero-covid strategy, the country is finally refining its approach. But a remark from president Xi Jinping is a reminder that China is not backing away from zero-covid completely.

China announced yesterday (June 28) that it will shorten quarantines for overseas arrivals from 14 days in a government facility to seven. Home quarantine, which follows the completion of centralized quarantine, will reduce from seven days to three. This change was based on the authorities’ assessment that the average incubation period of the omicron variant is around two to four days, meaning the virus can be detected within seven days. Hong Kong, which has already adopted looser ontrols, is also considering shortening its hotel quarantine from seven to five days.

China’s move to shorten quarantine represents its most significant relaxation of its zero-covid approach since early 2020. Through the pandemic, China has relied on lockdowns, mass testing, and other draconian measures to control the situation — what the government describes as a “dynamic zero-covid” approach. While the measures helped China recover quicker than the rest of the world, covid variants have posed a huge challenge. The approach has also damaged China’s economy and causing discontent among citizens.

In a sign of the government’s heightened sensitivity to lockdown fatigue, Beijing Daily, a Chinese state-owned media outlet, recently removed a quote it had attributed to Cai Qi, a Communist Party official, which said that Beijing could maintain covid controls for five more years. After a strong backlash against the line, the outlet made the change citing an editing error.

“It is part of the refining of ‘dynamic zero-Covid’ to better balance anti-epidemic work with economic development the leadership has repeatedly signaled, and plenty of people now hope that some sort of a bottom is in on lockdown-related economic shocks,” wrote Bill Bishop, a China analyst, in his news letter Sinocism today.

Xi stressed the importance of sticking to zero-covid

Even as the government declared its new relaxations, Xi said yesterday in Wuhan that zero-covid is the most “economic and effective” way for China to control the virus. “It is better to temporarily affect a little economic development than to harm the lives and health of the people,” said Xi, according to Xinhua.

Following Xi’s comment, Chinese stock markets, which rose yesterday after the announcement of the shortened quarantine time, have dropped today. The Hang Seng Index, the benchmark Hong Kong index, shed 0.7% in the afternoon after Xi’s remark, while indices of blue-chip companies listed in mainland China also dropped.

Zero-covid hasn’t gone away entirely

Xi’s remark aside, there are other signs China is not going to abandon the zero-covid approach entirely. The country hasn’t fully opened up yet. International fights to China remain scarce, and the country’s “circuit breaker” system, by which a flight can be suspended if it’s found to have carried a certain number of positive patients into China, continues to wreck many travel plans. Some authorities have also imposed their own covid rules, including extended quarantine times, prompting Beijing to issue decrees requiring them not to do so.

Meanwhile, a key party meeting is scheduled for late this year, around October, at which Xi is expected to announce his third term. As a result, authorities are under pressure to maintain a relatively covid-free environment in advance of the event, and they are likely to return to the strict zero-covid playbook to contain the spread. “One question is how the government will react when BA.5 eventually gets into China and starts spreading,” wrote Bishop, referring to the newest omicron variant that is spreading globally.

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