China’s dynamic “zero-Covid” policy has sparked an intense debate among Chinese commentators as some provinces and cities are perceived to have overdone lockdown measures.
On Monday, southern China’s Guangdong province recorded 2,528 new Covid cases, 92% of which were asymptomatic. On Monday evening, Guangzhou could have ended its three-day lockdown but the city extended it for another four days until November 11.
Signals from Beijing on whether the county is poised to relax zero-Covid have remained mixed since the end of the 20th Communist Party Congress, leaving investors and markets to guess and speculate on the economically-debilitating policy’s direction.
The Comprehensive Team for Joint Prevention and Control Mechanism for Covid-19, a body under the State Council, on November 5 called on local governments to maintain zero-Covid policies but at the same time urged the use of “scientific methods” to determine anti-epidemic measures.
It pointed out that some provinces and cities had “irregularly” expanded their lockdown areas and tightened social distancing and quarantine rules.
Hong Hao, managing director and head of research at BOCOM International, tweeted on November 1 that Beijing had already formed a “reopening committee” led by Wang Huning, a politburo standing committee member. Hong claimed that China might start to ease its quarantine rules in the coming March, after the winter cold season and Chinese new year holiday.
The Hang Seng Index rebounded by 13% the following week on the widely circulated post. The index had dropped to a 13-year-old low on October 24 after the completion of the week-long Party Congress on October 22.
Reuters reported on November 4 that Zeng Guang, a former chief epidemiologist at the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said substantial changes to China’s zero-Covid policy would soon be implemented.
Zeng said in an internal conference hosted by investment bank Citi that the conditions for China opening up were “accumulating” while the country will introduce many new policies in the next five to six months. He did not elaborate on potential policies.
Hu Xijin, a high-profile commentator and former editor-in-chief of the Communist Party-run Global Times, said in a social media post last Saturday that China was now at a crossroads in its anti-epidemic battle. Hu said Chinese people could no longer tolerate large-scale lockdowns, which he said would hurt local economies.
Hu wrote: “Prolonged lockdowns violated the basic principle of the dynamic zero Covid policy. If large-scale ‘static management’ is the main tool to fight the Covid this winter, the economy in some places will collapse while people also cannot stand it.”
Another renowned pro-state propagandist, Zhou Xiaoping, said on social media on November 5 that it was not meaningful to lock down areas and force people to take Covid tests.
Zhou wrote: “Is it really that difficult to be pragmatic? Now the situation is that a person coming back from the United States can go home after being quarantined for seven days. But a person who visits a remote place in China can be isolated for 70 days.
“Even if we want to fight the Covid battle until the end of it, we cannot spread rumors by saying that foreign medical systems have collapsed or that many people in other countries were killed by Covid or have serious sequelae. All these are untrue.”
However, Zhou’s post and related media reports were quickly deleted by state censors. He then said in a follow-up message that he hoped there would be no more “static management” in China.
Qiu Chaoyi, a journalist at the People’s Daily, on Monday published an article to praise the Communist Party for having implemented the lockdown measures in Shanghai between mid-March and mid-May.
Qiu said many people had initially raised concerns that lockdowns would create a huge economic loss for Shanghai but the party had given a clear and strong response to the public by showing it put people’s lives as the country’s top priority.
He said the Shanghai lockdowns successfully cut off the transmission of the highly-infectious Omicron strain, preventing hundreds of millions of Chinese people from being infected.
While Chinese commentators continue to debate the matter, the virus outbreak in Guangzhou has become a new pressing issue for Beijing.
As the disease’s new epicenter in China, Guangzhou launched mass testing in nine districts, including in Haizhu District, where more than 90% of the new cases in the city were identified.
China recorded 7,475 Covid cases, 88% of which were asymptomatic, on Monday. Hundreds of cases were also found in Inner Mongolia, Henan and Xinjiang.
At the same time, Hong Kong continued to ease its social distancing rules. The government said Tuesday that incoming tourists, led by travel agencies, would be allowed to enter theme parks and museums and enjoy meals together in designated areas in restaurants later this month.
Local travel agencies have called on the government to further ease its Covid rules after 200 international bankers were allowed to dine together at a financial summit last week while foreigners could watch Hong Kong Sevens, an international rugby tournament, without wearing masks over the past weekend.
Chief Executive John Lee said Tuesday the government would relax its Covid rules step by step.
Follow Jeff Pao on Twitter at @jeffpao3