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What Is China’s COVID Endgame?

For two years, China's policy of doing everything possible to stamp out COVID-19 outbreaks proved effective in achieving its stated aim. But, because this approach cannot be sustained indefinitely, the country's political leaders need to start thinking about an exit strategy.

CHICAGO – For most of the past two years, China’s “zero-COVID” strategy was seen as a drastic but effective way to maintain impressively low infection rates. The Chinese government locked down millions of people at a time, ordering them to stay in their homes – or even in schools and office buildings. Last winter, the city of Xi’an was locked down for an entire month. All of its 13 million residents were confined to their homes, where they had minimal access to necessities such as food.

Although this extreme strategy has had negative unintended consequences – including restricted medical care for other illnesses, separated families, and various other economic and social disruptions – it did keep COVID-19 infection rates low. Most people in China, and many observers elsewhere, viewed the costs as a worthwhile price to pay for sparing the broader population of 1.4 billion from the high mortality rates seen in countries like the United States.

The apparent success of the zero-COVID strategy has been a source of pride for the Chinese people, and the country’s leadership has touted it as a sign of China’s superiority. Ironically, however, the government’s political stake in the strategy’s early success has become a barrier to recovery. China’s political leadership has found it very difficult to shift to a more moderate strategy, because that would invariably lead to more COVID-19 infections and deaths. Though the total numbers might never get as high as in the US, an increase of deaths into the thousands would be hard for people to accept now that they have been led to expect zero.