China might be phasing out of its COVID-zero era, but experts warn ‘there is no playbook or exit strategy’

China is gripped by mixed messaging and uncertainty over the direction of Xi Jinping’s COVID-zero policy, as cases hit an all-time high and the president quarantines after his own close call.

In the past two weeks, the world’s last COVID-zero hold-out has seen case numbers surge from just a few hundred at the end of October to almost 30,000.

Unlike the Shanghai wave earlier this year, where similar numbers of daily infections were officially announced, the latest outbreaks are happening across multiple cities including the capital Beijing.

But the biggest difference is clarity.

In the past fortnight, Mr Xi’s government has announced — with fanfare — a slight loosening of COVID-19 control measures that rallied the market as investors pinned their hopes on an eventual reopening.

His state media stressed COVID-zero would remain, but some initial moves suggested otherwise.

Shijiazhuang, capital of the Heibei region and home to 11 million people, announced the suspension of mandatory daily PCR tests for all citizens during an ongoing outbreak, sparking hopes that other cities may follow suit.

Testing requirements for inter-province travel were also relaxed, and quarantine for close contacts and inbound travelers was reduced.

People cross a busy intersection as cars pass by on a sunny day.
China recorded another surge in new COVID-19 infections this week after recording its first COVID-related death in six months.(Reuters: Thomas Peter)

The changes were sold as “optimising” a COVID-zero policy for the long term and doing away with the extreme and wasteful aspects of the policy.

But with case numbers continuing to rise, some of the measures, such as reduced testing in Shijiazhuang, have already been rolled back.


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