All eyes are on President Xi Jinping's economic reform program. Image: Screengrab / NTV

China is expected to slightly relax its quarantine rules after the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s 20th National Congress although its “zero-Covid” policy is expected to continue.

CCP General Secretary and Chinese President Xi Jinping said in the opening speech of the Party Congress on Sunday (October 16) that the government had to continue its epidemic control measures to ensure that the number of infections would not rebound.

Xi said the epidemic was a crisis but also an opportunity to create a force to speed up the country’s infrastructure construction and industrial upgrade. The Party Congress will close on October 22 with a new CCP Central Committee formed. Xi is still widely expected to receive a third term as the party’s top leader.

Officially, China is sticking to its highly unpopular zero-Covid policy, which has contributed to pushing China’s consumer sentiment index to its lowest level in history and the slowest economic growth in over 30 years. Yet Chinese investors appear to anticipate a major coming shift in policy. 

In the past week, the healthcare sector of the CSI 300 Index jumped by 11.6%, with leading biotech companies up by 15% to 20%. The biotech rally suggests that investors expect a national shift to the Covid policy used successfully in Hong Kong, the only Chinese city that employed Western mRNA vaccines on a large scale. 

Although mRNA shots do not stop infection by the newest Omicron variants of Covid-19, they appear to reduce the severity of illness and the death rate. China’s homemade Sinovac shot, a traditional not mRNA vaccine, has proven largely ineffective against Omicron.

Meanwhile, the Chinese government is assembling a team of European scientists to advise it on vaccine policy. Introducing a mRNA shot on the mainland would signal an alternative to the mass lockdowns of the zero-Covid policy. 

In related news, Indonesia approved an mRNA vaccine developed by the Chinese firm Walvax, the first-ever certification of a Chinese-made mRNA vaccine, on September 30.

Since virus outbreaks were reported in Wuhan in late January 2020, both Hong Kong and mainland China introduced tough quarantine rules at their international borders.

During the global pandemic last year, they required incoming travelers to quarantine at hotels for 21 days and monitor their own health at home for seven more days.

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

Hong Kong has gradually shortened the quarantine period for international travelers this year. On September 26, it canceled its seven-day hotel quarantine requirement but still requires incoming travelers to undergo three days of health monitoring after arrival. Currently, mainland China still has a “7+3” quarantine arrangement, the strictest in the world.

When about 200 top CCP members held the seventh plenary session of the 19th CPC Central Committee on October 9-12, a Chinese columnist with a pen name “Zhong Yin” wrote three articles on the People’s Daily to praise China’s zero-Covid rules.

Zhong said China had to continue its dynamic Covid-zero strategy to fight against the coronavirus, adding that only if the epidemic was under control would the Chinese economy be stabilized.

Other state media including Xinhua, China Central TV and the state-owned Economic Daily also called on the Chinese people to remain patient with the country’s anti-epidemic rules.

Sun Yali, the spokesperson of the Party Congress, said on October 15: “Everyone hopes that the epidemic will end as soon as possible but what we see is that the epidemic is still there, and this is a reality that must be faced.”

Sun said “dynamic clearing”, or the zero-Covid policy, was an epidemic prevention policy formulated for China’s national conditions and in accordance with scientific laws.

He said the policy was aimed at precisely preventing and controlling the epidemic while minimizing the impact on economic and social development and the normal life of the masses.

He said China announced nine editions of its epidemic prevention and control plan, which is now more scientific, accurate and effective than in the past.

“We firmly believe that the dawn is ahead. We will win if we have persistence,” Sun said.

It is unclear whether Sun’s reminder was a direct result of the rebound in the number of positive cases after the National Day holidays in early October or rather referred to a long-term policy direction.

On Sunday, mainland China reported 245 new Covid cases with 18 of them identified in Guangdong, eight in Fujian, seven in Shanghai and six in Beijing.

Xi said on Sunday: “At present, China is facing a rising pressure of having more imported cases while the risk of having a rebound in domestic epidemic still exists.

“It is necessary to stay vigilant in epidemic prevention and control, improve the normalized virus prevention and control mechanism and ensure that the epidemic does not rebound.”

No sign yet Xi intends to reverse its Covid rules. Image: Facebook

After Xi made his speech, Tam Yiu-chung, the sole Hong Kong representative in the standing committee of the National People’s Congress, said there was a long way to go before the mainland could resume quarantine-free travel.

He said it was unrealistic to expect the mainland would relax its quarantine rules in one go.

However, he said it was still possible that the so-called “7+3” arrangement, which refers to the requirements that incoming travelers have to isolate at hotels for seven days and at home for three days thereafter, would be eased to “4+3” as the incubation period of the coronavirus was around three days.

He said if the “7+3” arrangement could be eased to “4+3,” more quarantine hotel rooms in Shenzhen would be available for people coming from Hong Kong to occupy. He said Beijing might then increase the quota for people to travel to Shenzhen from Hong Kong. 

He predicted visitors from Hong Kong would probably be allowed to stay in quarantine hotels in Dongguan and Huizhou soon.

In 2020, Shenzhen implemented a quota system that allowed people to travel from Hong Kong to Guangdong for special reasons such as for having medical treatments and attending funerals. In July this year, the quota increased from 800 to 2,000 people per day. However, it was slashed back to 1,000 last month as more Covid cases were reported in mainland cities.

Commenting on a previous suggestion to allow Hong Kong people to quarantine in local hotels before entering the mainland, Tam said there were a lot of technical problems for the idea to be realized. He said it was very difficult to create a closed-loop environment in Hong Kong hotels as all staff had to avoid going home for 14 days.

Tam said whether mainland China would be able to resume quarantine-free travel partly depended on the progress of the research of Covid vaccines. In fact, medical experts have already warned that mainland China may see a high death rate if it reconnects to the world without using mRMA vaccines.

As of Sunday, about 86.7% of people in Taiwan have received two doses of Western-made vaccines. It reported 28,847 Covid new cases on Sunday and 53 patients died. Its total number of infections reached 7.21 million people, about 31% of the island’s population.

On October 13, Taiwan ended its hotel quarantine requirements by adopting a “0+7” arrangement.

Hong Kong has adopted a “0+3” arrangement since September 26 but the business sector was not satisfied as it failed to attract international tourists. The Hong Kong Airport Authority said it will give away 500,000 free air tickets to tourists in early 2023 to promote the industry. 

Read: Hong Kong to end hotel quarantine on Sept 26

Follow Jeff Pao on Twitter at @jeffpao3