This is how China’s zero-covid policy is changing

It’s a confusing time. Instead of a single top-down decision from Beijing to roll back zero-covid policies, there have been many independent decisions announced by local governments in the last week, mostly about canceling mandatory PCR tests and reopening businesses. Yet they sometimes contradict each other, and plenty of Chinese cities are keeping their tight controls.

Lots of people are celebrating the fact that China has finally started pursuing a covid response emphasizing vaccines and treatments instead of quarantines and lockdowns, as the latter strategies hit the Chinese economy hard. But doubts are starting to grow because of a lack of clear messaging from the top. 

So in this newsletter I’ll try my best to summarize and explain the different policies.

The speculation started with a vaguely worded top-level speech. On November 30, Sun Chunlan, China’s vice premier, dubbed the “zero-covid czar,” said at a meeting in Beijing that China’s pandemic control is “facing new situations and new tasks” as the omicron variant takes center stage. She didn’t mention “dynamic zero,” China’s overarching policy to eliminate local outbreaks at any cost—thus signaling a change in the works.

In response, at least three provinces and 13 other cities, covering China’s most economically developed regions, have announced changes to their local covid control rules as of Monday, December 5. 

Despite the confusingly different language, these changes mostly target one thing: mass PCR testing.

Ever since May 2020, when Wuhan managed to test its whole population of over 10 million in the span of 10 days, China has been conducting mass PCR testing campaigns. The frequency of these campaigns increased this year as omicron spread, and many cities instated mandatory tests for all citizens every two or three days. Without a recent negative test result, people are barred from activities like using public transport or even entering stores, which became a significant burden to their daily lives.

That is finally changing. Many local governments are now replacing mandatory PCR tests with a new regime called “愿检尽检,” or “Those who want to get tested can all get tested.” The requirement for a negative PCR test result is being lifted across China. Cities like Tianjin have removed it for public transport, while it’s been lifted in Shanghai for entering most public venues, and Beijing even waived it for buying drugs in pharmacies.

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