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Here’s how China’s zero covid policy is evolving

Here’s how China’s zero covid policy is evolving

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It’s a confusing time. Instead of a single top-down decision from Beijing to roll back zero covid policies, numerous independent decisions were announced by local governments last week, mainly on the cancellation of mandatory PCR tests and the reopening of businesses. Yet they sometimes contradict each other, and many Chinese cities maintain strict controls.

Many people are celebrating that China has finally started to pursue a covid response emphasizing vaccines and treatments instead of quarantines and lockdowns, as the latter strategies have hit the Chinese economy hard. But doubts are starting to grow due to a lack of clear messages from the top.

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In this newsletter, I will therefore try my best to summarize and explain the different policies.

The speculation began with a vaguely worded high-level speech. Chinese Vice Premier Sun Chunlan, dubbed the “zero-covid czar,” said at a meeting in Beijing on Nov. 30 that China’s pandemic control “faces new situations and new tasks. while the omicron variant takes center stage. She did not mention “dynamic zero,” China’s all-encompassing policy to eliminate local outbreaks at all costs, signaling a shift in the works.

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

Despite the confusing and different language, these changes are primarily aimed at one thing: mass PCR testing.

Since May 2020, when Wuhan successfully tested its entire population of over 10 million within 10 days, China has been conducting mass PCR testing campaigns. The frequency of such campaigns has increased this year with the spread of omicron, and many cities have instituted mandatory testing for all citizens every two or three days. Without a recent negative test result, people are banned from activities like using public transport or even entering stores, which has become a significant burden on their daily lives.

This is finally changing. Many local governments are now replacing mandatory PCR testing 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 waived across China. Cities like Tianjin have removed it for public transport, while Shanghai has lifted it to enter most public places, and Beijing has even removed it for buying medicine from pharmacies.

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