A sea of containers primed for the West lie in a loading area of the Ningbo-Zhoushan Port but no ships are docked. Photo: Xinhua

Legions of cranes, straddle carriers and berths have fallen quiet in the eastern Chinese city of Ningbo – the world’s third-largest container port and a vital trade and maritime gateway – after one infection was found among the city’s 100,000 port workers this week. 

The indefinite closure of a key loading area of the sprawling Ningbo-Zhoushan Port since Wednesday has caused a growing logjam of trucks with containers full of goods destined for America and Europe. Shipping firms and exporters are protesting against the overnight shutdown while scrambling to make detours. 

Ningbo handled 28.72 million TEUs in 2020 and was ranked only after Shanghai and Singapore globally. It processed 1.17 billion tonnes of other cargo last year, more than any other port worldwide. 

Yet while Beijing is fixated on its zero-tolerance Covid-19 containment strategy, one asymptomatic case among the army of stevedores likely due to contact with foreign crews is one too many for Chinese cautious cadres.

Operations of the berth where the patient worked have been halted to test the entire staff and trace their close contacts. Before the latest case, Ningbo was already stuck in a prolonged process of clearing a backlog of containers from other closed ports across China, as Western retailers seek to replenish their stocks.  

Operations of a key loading area of the Ningbo Port have come to a halt with almost no workers seen there since Wednesday, another sign of Beijing clinging to its zero-case approach at the expense of business and trade. Photo: Xinhua

A Ningbo government spokesperson told Xinhua on Thursday that the overnight testing of 50,000 port workers and their close contacts had yielded no fresh cases. But the city of close to 10 million residents will soon have more rounds of expanded compulsory testing, since the worker was found to be infected with the Delta strain.

Shopping malls, cinemas and restaurants near the port have also been shut as a precaution, according to local papers. 

The more transmissible Covid variant is forcing pauses in livelihoods, consumption and production across an increasing swathe of China. Two-thirds of 31 provinces and municipalities are moving all-out to whittle down cases and eventually stamp out the virus, with their tried and true playbook of repeated mass testing and lockdowns – at whatever the cost.

Hopes are on the horizon as the National Health Commission (NHC) reported just 47 local infections on Thursday, down from a previous daily high of 108. 

But any talk of keeping trade and the economy up and running at the expense of Beijing’s “zero-case tolerance” policy is anathema to many top policymakers and much of the public.

Questions abound if China is regressing into a state of insularity as the West is easing and opening up. Beijing’s latest imperative is to seal its borders even tighter by halting the issuance of travel documents to its nationals and curtailing foreign arrivals. 

A security officer inspects a nearly deserted berth of the Ningbo Port. Photo: Xinhua

China’s “zero tolerance” containment disruptions are starting to impact global supply chains and snarl international trade as the world’s factory struggles to ship products overseas.

Divergent views are being aired among some health pundits and officials about the best way forward. 

Dr Zhang Wenhong, the head of the National Infectious Disease Medical Center in Shanghai who leads an elite panel advising Shanghai’s government on Covid, floated one notable trial balloon this week by doubting the sustainability of the draconian city-wide lockdowns and border closures that have to date underpinned Beijing’s successful Covid containment record. 

Zhang said Beijing would have to open its borders for the economy and exchange and learn to live with Covid just like the rest of the world since the disease would become more seasonal and endemic with anticipated regular resurgences.

“Focus should be shifted to preventing and curing severe cases and flatten the fatality rate as our zero case insistence may become untenable going forward,” he said. 

His remarks dovetail with a warning from Huang Yanzhong, a senior fellow for global health at the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations. Huang told Chinese media earlier this month that China’s all-nation-going-all-out mobilization would continue to insulate the country as Covid surged back worldwide due largely to the Delta strain.

Yet this may make China more vulnerable to new variants when most of its people have had no exposure and in turn force Beijing to close its border even longer and tighter.

A Chinese paramilitary police stands guard while a light show is seen from the Bund in Shanghai on June 30, 2021, on the eve of the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party. Photo: AFP / Hector Retamal

Zhang’s remarks were seen as channeling the views of Shanghai’s cadres, as the largest and most international city in mainland China grapples with a lukewarm economic recovery while the city’s sizable foreign expat and business community wring their hands over travel restrictions.  

Joerg Wuttke, the president of the European Chamber of Commerce China, has reportedly warned Shanghai’s mayor Gong Zheng that many member enterprises like Volkswagen had opted to hold off on making new investments until international travel and trade is restored. Volkswagen runs two sizable production bases in Shanghai and Ningbo.

But decisions to open the border in a shift from Covid control to coexistence is way beyond the mandate of local officials such as Gong while Beijing elevates the fight against Covid as an imperative across the government. 

The People’s Daily on Wednesday ran a “living with Covid” rebuke from China’s former health minister Gao Qiang, who led China’s response to the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) epidemic in 2003.

Gao jabbed the West’s “systemically flawed” pandemic prevention and labeled it a “gross disregard” for people’s lives. He said the premature loosening and scrapping of most measures and restrictions and the “blind confidence” in vaccines were to blame for the alarming spikes in the United Kingdom and elsewhere. 

“There is no such thing as ‘living with Covid’ and China must not fall into the West’s mistakes,” Gao said. He said that he had advised the NHC to update guidelines to further speed up mass testing to better tackle Delta’s ultrafast spread. 

Food stalls in a crowded pedestrian street in Guangzhou are converted into testing centers as China’s third-largest city moves all-out to contain a resurgence in May. Photo: Xinhua

Zhang Yiwu, a Peking University professor of social studies, told Asia Times that China would continue to close down entire cities, ports and airports to contain outbreaks.

However, as long as it could douse each flare-up and eliminate cases in short order and open up domestically to restore production and economy, the cost of the zero-case approach would be “manageable.” 

“People would feel safe and businesses could quickly claw back lost revenues in a restored ‘virus-free environment,’” he said.  

PKU professor Zhang said Beijing’s mandate and public sentiment were perfectly aligned since Chinese people had no “psychological immunity” to Covid outbreaks and Beijing was chiefly concerned about any unchecked viral spread threatening social stability and its rule. 

He said Beijing was unlikely to consider easing up for the next 12 to 18 months, until after the conclusion of the Communist Party’s 20th national congress next fall and the parliamentary session in the spring of 2023, when a new central government would be formed. 

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