Later this week, Chinese President Xi Jinping is heading out on his first international trip since January 2020. He’ll be paying a state visit to Kazakhstan, followed by a state visit to Uzbekistan, where Xi will also attend the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit in Samarkand.
All eyes are on the geopolitical implications of the trip, not least because Russia has announced that Xi will be holding a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the SCO summit. That will be their first in-person meeting since February 2022, when Xi and Putin declared a “no limits” partnership between their countries – followed just weeks later by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
My colleague Catherine Putz outlined the diplomatic implications of the upcoming trip, including the heavy symbolism of Xi selecting Kazakhstan as his first state visit in over two-and-a-half years. But the trip also has implications for China’s domestic policies, including a much-hoped-for easing of the “zero-COVID” approach.
The pandemic, after all, is the reason Xi has not travelled abroad since returning from Myanmar in January 2020. At first, he was not alone; in-person summitry ground to a halt across the world for 2020 and much of 2021. Yet as vaccines rolled out in 2021, more and more world leaders resumed their jet-setting ways. Eventually, Xi had become an odd exception.
The reason was inextricably bound up in China’s “zero-tolerance” approach to COVID-19, which involves stringent lockdowns to stamp out – rather than mitigate the effects of – the virus. That approach held for 2020 and 2021, until the hyper-contagious Omicron variant arrived. In 2022, outbreaks began popping up with disturbing frequency. China began reporting more cases than ever before (although still far less than much of the world), and more and more lockdowns ensued.
The two-month lockdown of Shanghai, China’s business and financial center and the home to 25 million people, was a grim awakening of the toll zero-COVID policies could take. Not only did the lockdown cause heavy economic damage, but it came at a steep cost for the people of Shanghai. Reports of Shanghai residents left without access to medicine or food proliferated on Chinese social media.
Alongside China’s stringent approach at home, it also remained largely closed to the outside world even as other countries began to cautiously reopen. Foreign students only received word that they could resume their studies in China this fall, and China still maintains a 10-day quarantine for foreign arrivals.
Given the stringent policies, it would have been a tough sell for Xi to travel abroad while China’s people were stuck at home – sometimes literally.
“If Xi and his officials go abroad frequently, Chinese people will think they are enjoying special treatment during the pandemic and will question the zero-COVID policy more,” Beijing-based analyst Mu Chunshan told The Diplomat via email.
“Therefore, due to the dual considerations of their own health safety and zero-COVID policy, Xi and most high-level Chinese officials have not gone abroad for more than two years… When Xi will travel abroad is indeed an indicator of his confidence in the pandemic in China and the world.”
Xi’s decision to resume international travel can thus be seen as part of a slow trend toward greater post-COVID reopening – welcome news to many of China’s citizens. Mu pointed out that China has recently allowed foreign students to enter the country and also cut the mandatory quarantine time for international arrivals. “Although China is still insisting on a zero-COVID policy now, I found starting from July, the Chinese government has begun to gradually open up,” he said.
And yet severe lockdowns continue in parts of the country. According to a count from the Associated Press, as of last week “65 million Chinese in 33 cities, including seven provincial capitals,” were under some form of lockdown.
In Chengdu, the capital of southwestern Sichuan province, authorities maintained strict enforcement of an ongoing lockdown even during a major earthquake that killed at least 93 people in outlying areas. “Following the quake, police and health workers refused to allow anxious residents of apartment buildings out, adding to anger over the government’s strict ‘zero-COVID policy’ mandating lockdowns,” the Associated Press reported.
Chengdu’s lockdown is still ongoing, bringing with it the usual stories of food shortages that often accompany these large-scale restrictions on movement. The lockdown, originally supposed to last just one week, has been extended “indefinitely.”
In far-western Xinjiang’s Ili prefecture, local residents also shared desperate stories of hunger and requests for medical aid, hoping their difficulties would earn the same attention Shanghai’s lockdown received. “We’ve been locked up in our home for more than 40 days. We are short of everything, especially food,” one resident told the Washington Post. She added that her apartment door was locked from the outside, opened only for mandatory COVID-19 testing.
In Xinjiang, the COVID-19 lockdown is unfolding alongside broader human rights abuses, particularly targeting the native Uyghur population. A recently released report from the U.N. human rights office found that “[t]he extent of arbitrary and discriminatory detention of members of Uyghur and other predominantly Muslim groups … in [the] context of restrictions and deprivation more generally of fundamental rights … may constitute international crimes, in particular crimes against humanity.”
Chinese authorities are extremely sensitive to criticisms about Xinjiang, and are cracking down particularly hard on reports from Ili prefecture. That includes threatening anyone who posts about their plight on social media with jail time. At least four people have already been arrested for having “spread rumors on the internet” and “disrupted the order of anti-pandemic measures,” according to China Digital Times.
Instead, authorities are trying to create an alternate reality by playing up images of Ili’s natural scenery. One post, highlighted and translated by Manya Koetse of What’s on Weibo, captures the dynamic:
This is really happening during the Yili [the Mandarin name for Ili] epidemic, the locals have tried many things to let the outside world know about our circumstances here. I beg of you, look at us, help us in this little border town, we’re locked inside and don’t have enough supplies, yet they opened the tourist scenic areas, help us, help us here, help the Yili common people!
The desperation of those caught in continued lockdowns is at stark odds with the hopeful signals sent by Xi’s foray abroad.
Most China analysts believe we won’t see a real change in China’s zero-COVID policy until after the 20th National Party Congress in mid-October. Pandemic management has become a political issue, with Chinese officials and state media repeating linking the policy to Xi himself, making it sacrosanct and unquestionable. After the Congress, where Xi is widely expected to secure a third term as Chinese Communist Party general secretary, there may be more room for a change.
“However, I think it is still impossible that China will give up [its] zero-COVID policy completely, like the West,” Mu, the Chinese analyst, said.