China has eased 'zero-Covid' rules in what was seen as a first step toward reopening but cases are spreading as restrictions are loosened. Photo: Screengrab / BBC

In the latest flex of China’s economy-killing “zero Covid” policy, at least 34 cities are now partially or completely locked down after a total of 6,696 cases were identified across the country of 1.4 billion earlier this month.

Tianjin municipal city and provincial cities including Sichuan’s Chengdu, Tibet’s Lhasa, Qinghai’s Xining, Xinjiang’s Urumqi, Henan’s Shijiazhuang, Guizhou’s Guiyang and Heilongjiang’s Harbin have locked down many of their city districts.

Meanwhile, certain districts in Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen have also adopted so-called “silent management mode” policies to slow virus transmission. Caixin reported late Sunday (September 4) that the measures have affected over 65 million people nationwide.

While most Western countries ended their quarantine and social distancing rules earlier this year, China has been reluctant to abandon its “zero Covid” policy and adopt the West’s “living with the virus” strategy.

After the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) announced last week its plan to hold its 20th National Congress on October 16, China Central TV said in an opinion piece that the West’s “living with the virus” strategy was like “dancing with the demons.” Citing World Health Organization data, it said over one million people Covid patients had died so far this year.

Many Chinese cities have recently adopted a new “silent management mode” policy in which residents are required to take daily Covid tests, avoid leaving home except for essential reasons and refrain from gatherings.

Chengdu is under the spotlight as it has just gone through an extremely hot and dry summer and then a power shortage caused by insufficient hydropower output. Now it is suffering from lockdowns, as well as an earthquake that hit on Monday morning.  

Shanghai, China’s largest commercial city with a population of 26 million, was locked down between mid-March and mid-May. As a result, China’s second quarter GDP grew a meager 0.4% year on year, missing the market consensus forecast of 1.0% and slowing sharply from the 4.8% growth recorded in the first quarter.

Health workers in Tianjin in a file photo. Photo: Twitter

In late June, the State Council unveiled a series of measures to stimulate the economy and create jobs, mainly by starting new infrastructure projects. Local governments also relaxed their property curbs and encouraged people to buy new cars and home appliances.

Many economists, health experts and pundits had earlier predicted China’s Covid policies would become more flexible to avoid hurting the economy. But politics could be a driving force behind the latest lockdowns.

The People’s Daily reported on August 31 that the standing committee of the politburo of the CCP Central Committee held a meeting on August 30 and decided to hold the 20th Party Congress on October 16. Before that, the 19th Central Committee, which has 204 members, will hold its seventh meeting on October 9.
The CCP holds its National Congress every five years, usually in October or November, to elect its top leaders and decide the country’s policy directions. More than 2,000 party members from different parts of the country will hold a week-long meeting in Beijing and approve the establishment of the 20th Central Committee, which has about 200 members.

The 20th Central Committee will then hold its first meeting to select a politburo with 25 people and a standing committee with seven people. The new leaders will start their terms after the National People’s Congress holds an annual meeting in March 2023.

It has been widely predicted that CCP secretary Xi Jinping will win an unprecedented third term as president at the Party Congress.

Chinese state media has reiterated the importance of maintaining strict Covid policies and reported that at least 34 cities had been locked down after the announcement of congress’s official schedule. Yet only a few hundred cases have recently been reported in mainland China each day.

Liu Xiaofeng, deputy head of the Beijing municipal disease prevention and control center, said Tuesday: “The risk of virus transmission is increasing as it is now at the end of the summer vacation and the start of the back-to-school period.

“The recent virus outbreaks related to colleges and universities once again showed that the epidemic prevention and control situation is grim.”

Liu said in the coming week, students and teachers in primary and secondary schools and colleges should avoid gathering and reduce activities while testing regularly for Covid.

These measures were implemented after the Beijing University of Chemical Technology Changping identified one positive case and five preliminary cases on Tuesday.

Yang Xiaoguang, head of Chengdu’s health commission, said: “The number of new cases has shown an upward trend since August 26, but it has been stabilized at between 120 and 160 cases per day recently.

“As the number is still above 100, Chengdu has not yet achieved a basic clearance at the community level. Our anti-epidemic measures cannot be eased for the moment.”

Since September 1, about 20 million people in Chengdu have completed three rounds of Covid tests. All students have to study online while residents are urged to stay home.

In Shanghai, the city’s health commission held a press conference on Tuesday after an 11-year-old girl tested positive. The city isolated 98 people who had close contact with the girl. Four places are now categorized as mid- and high-risk areas. People in Jing’An and Putuo districts will have to complete two Covid tests within three days.

On September 2, six districts in Shenzhen said they had started to adopt the “silent management mode” policy. All entertainment premises have or will be shut down while workers are encouraged to work from home if available. Dining-in services at restaurants and most subway lines have been stopped.

The Shenzhen government stressed that the measures were not a “lockdown” and it was wrong to say that the entire city was under “silent management.”

On Monday, the city recorded 27 Covid infections and nine asymptomatic cases. Its neighbor Hong Kong reported 9,373 cases on Tuesday.

Hong Kong previously maintained one of the strictest quarantine regimes in the world but has recently loosened up. Photo: AFP via Getty Images / Bertha Wang

Mainland China currently requires incoming travelers to be isolated at hotels for seven days and then three more days at home. Hong Kong requires incoming travelers to be quarantined at hotels for three days.

From September 1, Taiwan has allowed only visitors to be quarantined at home for three days. The self-governing island, where 85% of its 24 million people are fully vaccinated with Western vaccines, reported 36,393 Covid cases and 21 deaths on Tuesday.

In mainland China, 90% of its 1.4 billion people have been fully inoculated with the country’s domestically-produced vaccines, which studies and reports indicate have lower protection rates than Western-made shots. 

Read: Drought roiling China’s already evaporating economy

Follow Jeff Pao on Twitter at @jeffpao3