China doubles down on COVID-zero strategy

A 5,000 room quarantine facility in Guangzhou is an indication China has no plans to ease strict border controls even as other countries adopt new strategies.

People in China have been able to live largely normal lives since harsh restrictions stamped out the initial COVID-19 outbreak in Wuhan in April last year [File: Alex Plavevski/EPA]

An expansive compound of buildings covering the equivalent of 46 football pitches was recently erected on the outskirts of Guangzhou, China’s bustling southern metropolis.

The sprawling complex of three-storey buildings contains some 5,000 rooms and is the first of what is expected to be a chain of quarantine centres built by the Chinese government to house people arriving from overseas as it forges ahead with its zero-tolerance approach to COVID.

The compound is equipped with “5G communication technology and artificial intelligence” infrastructure, and each room, which can host only one person at a time, has cameras at its door and a robot delivery system to “minimise human contact and the risk of cross-infection”, according to the introduction to the centre put out by the Guangzhou government.

It took the construction team less than three months to finish the project – in an echo of the Huoshenshan and Leishenshan temporary hospitals that were built in record time in the central city of Wuhan as COVID-19 took hold in early 2020.

But while those hospitals were greeted with relief, the appearance of the quarantine centre nearly two years after the trauma of Wuhan has left some wondering why China is not relaxing its virus strategy now that the vast majority of its one billion people have been fully vaccinated.

They’re building more facilities but there is no indication the authorities plan to ease the restrictions that have effectively ended international travel for people in China.

“On one hand you have experts such as Zhong Nanshan and Gao Fu suggesting that once the vaccination rate in China reached over 85 percent, then it’s about time to open up,” said Yanzhong Huang, a fellow at the Washington DC-based Council on Foreign Relations, referring to two prominent public health experts in China. “But on the other hand, all the measures in place seem to suggest that Beijing is going to sustain the zero-tolerance strategy.”

After an initially sluggish vaccination campaign, China has fully inoculated about 75 percent of its total population with its domestically manufactured COVID-19 vaccines (it has not approved any foreign made vaccines for use).

Closed borders and exacting travel rules and quarantines have left airports nearly empty and thousands of Chinese nationals unable to return home [File: Alex Plavevski/EPA]

But it remains completely committed to eliminating the virus domestically, including strict border measures and compulsory quarantines for those arriving from overseas.

“I live in Auckland and when I heard New Zealand was opening up, I thought the same day for China would come soon, too,” said Yang Guang, a Chinese national who studies in Auckland, referring to New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s recent announcement to put an end to the country’s similar zero-covid strategy after failing to contain a Delta variant-induced outbreak.

“It’s been almost two years since I last saw my parents, but the ridiculously expensive flight ticket and the prolonged quarantine time are making it difficult for me to return home,” Yang lamented of his failed efforts to try to go back to China.

Yang’s sentiment is shared by many people who have been stuck outside of the country for months, including Chinese nationals and foreigners who previously held valid visas to enter China.

Testing travel rules

Travelling to China is already strenuous as a result of the pandemic conditions, involving long days of quarantine, strict COVID-19 testing – including two separate PCR and antibody tests that must be conducted at different labs – and troublesome procedures, such as submitting forms, test results, and some declarations to respective Chinese embassies to get a green code, which is only valid for 48 hours to board a plane.

But while the fully vaccinated have been allowed some quarantine concessions in countries like Australia and Malaysia and can avoid it in many European countries, in China it is of no consequence. The quarantine rules apply to all equally.

Flights are also becoming increasingly unaffordable.

Last year, the government banned people from transiting in a third country to return to China if there was a direct flight from their original departure place. Coupled with a notorious flight arrangement policy that allows one airline to operate only one flight per week from any specific country that is aimed at controlling the number of international arrivals, the moves have driven up the cost of air travel.

“Flight tickets used to cost about $150 to fly from Bangkok to Chengdu,” a Chinese national who has been stuck in Bangkok for more than two years and is from the southwestern city told Al Jazeera.  “Now I’d call myself lucky if I manage to find a ticket for less than $3,000.”

Before COVID-19, many Chinese were enthusiastic overseas travelers. Now, with tough border controls and lengthy quarantines, they are holidaying at home [File: Roman Pilipey/EPA]

Different destinations in China also apply different quarantine measures: the shortest quarantine is 21 days, in cities such as Shanghai, where arrivals are put under 14 days of centralised quarantine followed by seven days of home isolation. Cities such as Beijing require a further seven days of “health monitoring” on top of the 21-day quarantine.

Additionally, in countries such as the United Arab Emirates and Iraq, the Chinese embassies, which are in charge of distributing the green code, have instructed passengers to self-quarantine for 14 days before departure. That means some travellers could end up spending nearly a month and a half in some form of quarantine.

Apart from restricting international arrivals, the government is also determined to prevent its citizens from travelling abroad. The immigration authority issued a “do not travel unless it is necessary and urgent” guidance earlier this year, with the interpretation of “necessity and urgency” varying at different border control points.

Under the guidance, the government stopped issuing passports to people without “urgent and necessary reasons” to leave the country; and those who try to leave the country “without urgent and necessary reasons” are also being barred from departing.

Beijing’s doubling down of the strategy has inevitably brought havoc to many – not just Chinese nationals, but to members of the international business community who might live in China or do business there.

A similarly punishing regime in the semi-autonomous Chinese city of Hong Kong has drawn warnings that it could undermine the territory’s status as a global financial hub. It has not deterred the government there; it insists its focus is to be able to reopen its border with the mainland and on Wednesday removed almost all exemptions on Beijing’s recommendation, according to the South China Morning Post.

‘Don’t forget how horrible things were’

The draconian response to containing the virus since the initial Wuhan outbreak was tamed in April 2020 has yielded impressive results. Despite sporadic outbreaks in the past months, the lives of people in China have largely returned to normal.

Even with the Delta variant, which is more transmissible, China has still managed to stamp out outbreaks.

Those who live in China and have no need to go anywhere else remain hugely supportive of the zero-COVID policy and few are willing to give up the gains of the past 18 months for the sake of a more open border.

“I hope people don’t forget how horrible things were in Wuhan, and our country brought that situation under control, and I hope we could stay this way for as long as possible,” Lu Xuan, a 35-year-old Guangzhou-resident, told Al Jazeera. “If you asked any ordinary Chinese now to choose between ‘living with COVID’ and ‘not being able to travel internationally but having no COVID,’ I can guarantee you most would choose the latter.”

With strong domestic support and relatively uninterrupted international trade, China is in no hurry to open its borders, according to analysts. It also benefits from having a domestic market that means it can be largely self-sufficient.

“The earliest we might see a relaxation of quarantine measures could be as late as late 2022, and it’s not impossible to push that day well into 2023,” one source who worked in one of the government ministries told Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity because she was not authorised to speak to the media.

“And China won’t open up at once to all countries – it would be a gradual process where we would open the border first to low-risk places, as deemed by the government, such as Hong Kong, and then gradually to other countries,” she added.

Still, if every other country moves to ease its approach to COVID-19 and allow more international travel, while China maintains its highly risk-averse approach it would appear an outlier, says CFR’s Yanzhong Huang.

The strategy that was once a demonstration of the superiority of the Chinese model would just “show its inferiority to the more realistic alternative,” he said.

Source: Al Jazeera