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How China Missed Its COVID-19 Opportunity

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How China Missed Its COVID-19 Opportunity

After initial missteps, Beijing had the chance to be the envy of the world for its pandemic management. What went wrong?

How China Missed Its COVID-19 Opportunity

A medical worker prepares a dose of Sinopharm vaccine at a vaccination facility in Beijing on Jan. 15, 2021.

Credit: AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein

Despite early failures, Chinese government efforts to contain the COVID-19 pandemic have been overwhelmingly successful. Curiously, Beijing has failed to capitalize on this success to increase its global reputation.

Instead, a continued ban on most foreign nationals entering the country, scientifically questionable quarantine regimes for international arrivals, as well as hostility toward independent investigations into the origin of the virus have made this all but impossible. At the same time, recent concerns about the efficacy of Chinese vaccines have also threatened to undermine the results of Beijing’s vaccine diplomacy. After successfully containing the virus, a global PR strategy should have been the easy part. So why did Beijing fail to grasp the opportunity?

To be sure, the suppression of crucial information and the harassment of medical professionals in the early stages of the outbreak in Wuhan allowed the virus to spread unchecked. The argument, however, that this initial failure was uniquely inherent to the Chinese political system is hard to substantiate.

In the United States and the United Kingdom, to pose two democratic examples, information about the severity of the threat was widely available when the first cases were reported on their shores. Yet their political leaders opted to play down the danger, spread misinformation, and attack health officials for political gains. Sound familiar? As a consequence, hundreds of thousands of people in the U.S. and U.K. alone died of COVID-19, even as other countries were already demonstrating how to contain the spread more effectively.

Since its early failures, the Chinese government has pursued a strategy of hard and early lockdowns, coupled with comprehensive contact tracing throughout the country. The results speak for themselves. In fall 2020, when much of the world was still in lockdown, Chinese citizens could be seen enjoying themselves at pool parties in Wuhan, celebrating beer festivals in Qingdao, or dancing in Shanghai nightclubs. To Beijing, this should have been its city upon a hill moment. It failed to seize it.

As vaccination campaigns progressed in the EU and the United States, their governments have recently started issuing visas again, in some cases even opening borders to international tourism. Not so in China. Life in most of the country has returned to normality, yet borders continue to be shut for foreign arrivals with few exceptions. Aside from being disruptive for those hoping to enter China, this should prove detrimental to Chinese national interests.

Consider the case of international students. Every year governments allocate considerable resources to attract them, not just to create meaningful cultural exchange, but to serve concrete economic and soft power interests. Beijing, too, has aggressively expanded scholarship opportunities for foreign students in the past decades, set up English-language university degrees, and funded Chinese language education in China and abroad.

It is in this light that the continued entry ban seems puzzling. Although much of China has returned to in-person teaching, foreign nationals have had to give up on their plans of studying in China or are still holding out to enter the country in the indefinite future.

Some of these students have turned instead to Taiwan. With the pandemic largely under control throughout much of 2020, Taipei continued to issue youth mobility and work-seeking visas, allowing international students digitally enrolled at Chinese universities to enter the island. In a show of diplomatic force, the Taiwanese government also swiftly allowed U.S. Fulbright scholars scheduled to go to China to transfer to the Taiwan program. In addition to the symbolic significance of this small gesture, it will undoubtedly alter some long-term career paths and political allegiances.

On the mainland, meanwhile, even foreign nationals who have obtained the rare privilege of entering China in pandemic times face a host of challenges. While most countries have designed quarantine policies around the scientifically estimated 14-day incubation period, international arrivals in China are often subject to three full weeks of quarantine.

Arrivals who test negative for COVID-19, but test positive for antibodies because of vaccination or having recovered from the virus, can immediately be transferred into hospital quarantine for weeks, where they are subjected to intense testing routines including nasal and throat swabs, blood tests, and anal swabs multiple times per day. Health experts have long called this scientifically questionable focus on antibodies problematic, and foreign governments have loudly criticized the use of anal swabs on arrivals, as they are less effective than respiratory tract tests and needlessly invasive.

Adding to these concerns, the international community has run into resistance from Beijing against independent investigations into the origins of the pandemic. For the most part, experts hope that such investigations may provide information allowing more effective prevention of future zoonotic diseases. But as a number of prominent virologists have stated that even a laboratory leak as the origin of the virus is not completely off the table, the battle over such investigations has firmly entered the political realm.

After allowing a limited first phase of a WHO investigation in early 2021, the Chinese government now resolutely rejects its continuation. A day before proposing the second phase, the WHO noted that scientists still lacked raw data from the early days of the outbreak in Wuhan, and urged Beijing to cooperate in a transparent manner. In a defiant response, Beijing has called the proposal “disrespectful,” accused the WHO of “arrogance,” and suggested that further inquiry into the origin of the pandemic should move away from China. Even assuming that the leadership in Beijing has nothing to hide, its resistance to independent scientific investigation is not helping its credibility.

Within the country’s borders, Chinese government propaganda has carefully nurtured a positive narrative of the pandemic response, one that unites Chinese citizens under a nationalism that blurs the lines between citizens and government, telling the story of a glorious struggle of the Chinese spirit. The common enemy in this story is the virus, but Beijing’s nationalist rhetoric has also readily redirected domestic misgivings toward foreign powers.

Celebrating China’s global ascendance and the government’s handling of the pandemic at the recent Communist Party centenary, President Xi Jinping declared that any foreign powers attempting to bully China would “crack their heads and spill blood on the Great Wall of steel built from the flesh and blood of 1.4 billion Chinese people.”

Consequentially, this broader communications strategy has come at the cost of further deterioration of China’s international relations. Beijing does not seem to mind. It has chosen to prioritize the government’s domestic legitimacy over its global reputation. As long as this continues to be the case, it is unlikely that China will be able to capitalize on its pandemic success in the international realm.