A team of health inspectors in hazmat gear disinfect an Air China jet at Shanghai Pudong Airport in 2021. The city continues to bear the brunt of the Chinese government's 'zero Covid' policy. Photo: Xinhua

China’s strict border controls and health inspection regime are now widely known as Beijing’s new Covid firewall.

The measures were hastily put in place before the summer of 2020 to fence in all provinces and cities to keep out the novel coronavirus, after the nation largely banished the pandemic after it first emerged in the city of Wuhan.

Now China’s firewall has become nearly impregnable and is being strengthened as the West edges towards loosening its entry requirements as caseloads fall amid vaccination campaigns.

The different approaches of China and the West are plain to see as Chinese ministries responsible for health and border protection have scrambled to send updated directives to border cities, airports and checkpoints that aim to beef up the country’s defenses against so-called “backflows.”

Meanwhile, in the West there is widespread optimism about travel bubbles, vaccine passports and mutual recognition of tests and inoculations for transatlantic travel and exchanges, now that the focus of the global contagion has shifted back to Asia, particularly India. 

In comparison, Beijing is taking its time before opening up to long-haul travel. Its economy has regained much of its footing, registering 18.3% year-on-year growth in the first quarter and with key metrics surging back to near pre-Covid levels — even though its borders remain tightly sealed and foreign arrivals have been vastly curtailed. 

A health officer inspects a Singapore Airlines cargo jet at Shanghai Pudong Airport. Photo: China News Service
Shanghai’s sizable expat community has not been spared by the city’s grid-by-grid community health checks and vaccination blitzes. Many foreigners living in the city have not returned to their home countries for more than a year amid quarantine red tape upon their return. Photo: Handout

Statistics show that tourism and consumption-related industries including catering and accommodation contributed 11% of China’s gross domestic product (GDP) in 2019, or nearly 10 trillion yuan (US$1.56 trillion). Domestic tourism accounted for 90% of those takings. 

Currently, China only grants admission to foreigners with work visas and stay permits who must get clean slates in blood serum and polymerase chain reaction tests 24 hours before they travel to the country. Upon arrival in China, they must undergo up to three weeks of quarantine as well as multiple subsequent tests.

The southern city of Shenzhen has swiftly reinstated 14 days of quarantine with one additional week of homestay isolation for anyone from Hong Kong to prevent spillovers after the latter’s confirmation of locally transmitted clusters involving the highly contagious mutant strain now ravaging India.

The southeastern Fujian province also scrapped its quarantine waiver for Taiwanese residents this month as the self-governing island grapples with infections ignited by the haphazard isolation of aircrews at Taipei’s main airport. 

Shenzhen Bay Port is now the only checkpoint that is open on mainland China’s border with Hong Kong. Travelers coming from the city will face up to three weeks in quarantine. Photo: Weibo

Meanwhile, the high mountains between Tibet and India are not enough to give Chinese cadres in charge of the autonomous border region peace of mind.

Tibet’s party chief Wu Yingjie reportedly ordered more security personnel to be deployed along the border with India’s Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh states to “fend off” illegal immigrants, even though the rough, barren terrain already serves as a natural buffer.

People’s Liberation Army troops deployed in the border area are said to have been fully inoculated with Chinese vaccines. Tibet, with a population of 3.5 million, has logged only one Covid case and the patient was discharged more than a year ago, says the National Health Commission. 

China’s slow vaccine take-up also means the masses are ill-prepared for any influx of the virus from border reopenings. The NHC’s previous full vaccination target of 40% of the entire population, or 560 million Chinese, by the end of June now looks unachievable as daily jabs administered nationwide continue to hover around five million, half of the original goal. 

The NHC said on Monday that more than 324 million doses had been given, though it did not specify how many have received the two shots needed to be fully vaccinated. Experts now warn that the slow pace of vaccination, combined with people’s hesitancy, has left Beijing with no choice but to fortify the border firewall. 

Dr Jennifer Huang Bouey, an epidemiologist and China policy studies specialist at the California-based think tank RAND Corporation, noted in her blog that huge risks could be lurking beneath the surface of China’s weeks-long streak of zero local infections as any resurgence could be “explosive” with such a low level of vaccinations. The last time Chinese state media acknowledged local cases was in early April. 

The expert noted that strict border controls meant few Chinese have naturally acquired immunity against the new viral mutants while at the same time the efficacy of China’s vaccines against the new strains remains largely uncertain. She said opening borders prematurely would be courting disasters and that Beijing had no other option but to keep incoming travel at a minimum. 

A woman receives a vaccination at a hospital in Shanghai. Photo: AFP

Singapore’s Lianhe Zaobao newspaper even predicted that Chinese borders, including the one with Hong Kong, would remain closed for the remainder of the year. If so, that means the country would reopen just in time for the Beijing Winter Olympics in February 2022.

Beijing is reportedly drafting meticulous contingency plans to ensure tightly controlled border reopenings for athletes and foreign dignitaries for the Olympics.

Beijing is expected to announce details regarding testing, quarantine and accommodation for foreigners in the coming months, after President Xi Jinping’s call with International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach last Friday. 

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