Peer reviewed analysis from world leading experts

China won’t open up after lockdown anytime soon

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Medical professionals and staff sanitize a kindergarten in Yichuan county, Luoyang city, central China's Henan province, 9 September 2021 (Photo: Reuters).

In Brief

What is normal in a post-pandemic world? How can the idea of a return to a normal state of affairs be articulated and realised by a state? The answers to these questions depends what country you are talking about. At present China equates a return to normal with zero COVID-19 cases, where China is safe from imported cases of the virus and where its population is protected from local transmissions.


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To achieve this, China has locked itself away from most of the world and put its population through an extensive campaign of vaccinations. According to China’s National Health Commission, by the first week of September Chinese authorities had administered over two billion doses of the three Chinese vaccines currently available. Although it is unclear how many people have received both doses, it is an impressive effort. But this does not mean that China has successfully returned to normal.

The efficacy of local vaccines is the biggest hurdle the government faces in moving towards a post-pandemic normal. China has undertaken a massive inoculation campaign and any vaccine is a good vaccine if it prevents the onset of severe symptoms or death but not all vaccines are equal.

Chinese vaccine manufacturers SinoPharm and SinoVac have not released comprehensive phase three data for their vaccines for peer review. There was a May 2021 study on SinoPharm’s two vaccines, but it was notable for not including certain vulnerable populations nor those beyond the West Asian countries. SinoVac is yet to release its Phase 3 vaccine data, but World Health Organization estimates — released when it was given emergency approval — stated that it prevents symptomatic disease in only 51 per cent of the inoculated population. Both the efficacy of the vaccines and the transparency of the data supporting them is well below that offered by other vaccine producers.

This is a problem because most of the world has chosen a different pathway to post-pandemic normal. Whether through conscious policy decisions to prioritise economic security over health security, political choices, access to more efficacious vaccines or simply because countries could not access sufficient vaccines for their populations, most of the world is living with the virus and its consequences. As a result, COVID-19 is going to be globally endemic rather than eradicated. The difference between these pathways presents major hurdles for China, medically, economically and politically.

Economically, a return to normal will require China to open its borders. Yet to do so will expose Chinese society to new infections, all without the type of lockdowns that were characteristic of China’s earlier responses to COVID-19. In the early phase of the pandemic, such mass lockdowns balanced a short-term shock to eradicate the virus against longer-term economic and social costs. Mass lockdowns are no longer a cost-effective response because most of the rest of the world has accepted living with the long-term presence of the virus.

If China is to shift towards a post-pandemic normal, it will have to accept a greater likelihood of community transmissions than is presently the case. There is no indication that such a scenario is presently acceptable to the Chinese government.

The difference in efficacy rates between Chinese and Western vaccines and the associated economic challenges feed into a significant challenge for the Chinese government — selling the issues arising from its divergence with the rest of the world to the Chinese people. All the actions undertaken to date have been largely accepted as those of a government doing its best to protect its citizens. This message has been strengthened by a media narrative that highlights the problems facing other countries in not following a similar strategy to that of China.

If the rest of the world successfully moves to a post-pandemic normal where greater risks and disruptions can be absorbed by re-opening economies, then the Chinese strategy of distancing itself from global flows of services and people may be questioned. In 2019, an estimated 155 million Chinese citizens travelled abroad, with 145 million people entering China from overseas. Two years of pandemic restrictions have created a large demand to travel and crippled local industries that relied on overseas arrivals. If these restrictions were unnecessary or ineffective, then the resulting public ire would be focused on the government.

Given this reality, the Chinese government is unlikely to seek a new post-pandemic normal of opening up anytime soon. It first needs to deal with or significantly mitigate the medical, economic, and most importantly, the political threats posed by opening its borders and returning to the world. For now, China exists inside its own bubble.

It is a safe but unsustainable option for any country seeking to return to normal.

Nicholas Thomas is Associate Professor at the Department of Asian and International Studies, City University of Hong Kong.

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