China’s Zero-Covid Policy: The Motivations and Hidden Costs 中国的“清零政策”:动机与隐藏成本

By Luna Xue 

Photo Credit: South China Morning Post

Since May 2020, China has recorded only four deaths from COVID-19, around 24,000 cases, and a death rate below 0.0004%. The Chinese government is bragging about the success of its Zero-Covid Policy in fighting against the pandemic. However, these statistics do not tell the full story. Aside from doubts about the credibility of the official data, Chinese society has been paying a huge economic and psychological cost to maintain the low number of new cases. Since the spread of the Omicron variant, which may have a death rate similar to a normal flu virus, China’s Zero-Covid Policy is becoming increasingly difficult to justify.

自 2020 年5月来,中国大陆的COVID-19数据仅仅新增了4例死亡病例和24,000 例确诊病例——这意味着中国的新冠死亡率低于 0.0004% 。中国政府正在宣扬自己采用“清零政策”在抗击疫情方面取得的成功。然而,这些数据并不能展现故事的全部。除了对官方数据可信度的质疑之外,社会一直以来都在为维持低新增病例付出巨大的经济和心理成本。自Omicron 变种(其死亡率相当于普通流感病毒)的传播以来,中国政府开始越来越难以为其“清零政策”辩护。

The most recent surge of around 400 new cases occurred in January 2022 in Tianjin, a city 66 miles from Beijing with a population of 14 million. Like other Chinese cities that experienced breakouts, Tianjin implemented a series of measures including temporary lockdowns, area division, mandatory testing, and digital green passes to fight against the Omicron breakout.

最近一次疫情爆发(约400例新增确诊)发生在2022年1月的天津,一座距北京 107 公里、拥有 1400 万人口的城市。与其他经历过疫情爆发的城市类似,天津实施了一系列政策来应对Omicron变种的传播,包括临时封锁、区域划分、强制核酸检测和电子绿色通行证等。

After Tianjin confirmed its first Omicron case of community spread on January 8, 2022, the city quickly responded with a lockdown. Subsequently, the Tianjin government implemented the “area division” policy, meaning Tianjin classified every apartment complex into one of three categories: closed areas, control areas, or prevention areas. In closed areas, residents are strictly confined to their apartments for quarantine. The rules in control areas are less strict – residents can leave their apartments but must stay in their apartment complex. To satisfy residents’ basic needs, the government arranges daily tests and delivery of food and basic necessities in these areas. Even though the quarantine lacks a clear end date and is often seen as excessively strict, residents usually have no choice but to follow the government’s instructions. 

在于1月8日确认首例 Omicron 社区传播病例后,天津市迅速采取了封城措施。随后,政府实施了“区域划分”的政策,将天津的居民区归类于三种类别:封控区,管控区和防范区。封控区的居民被严格限制在家中进行隔离;而管控区的规定相对比较宽松——居民可以离开自己的家,但不能离开所在的小区。为了满足居民的基本需求,政府在这些地区安排了食物、必需品的配送,以及日常核酸检测。尽管隔离措施十分严格且没有明确的结束日期,但居民除了听从政府的指示外通常没有更多选择。

As of mid-February 2022, around 20 apartment complexes in Tianjin are listed as either closed areas or control areas. Other Tianjin residences, where no new cases were confirmed, are classified as prevention areas. Mandatory tests are also required for every resident in prevention areas. Those who abide by these requirements receive a digital green pass to enter public spaces like schools, supermarkets, and restaurants. Failure to comply with these requirements results in an orange or even red pass, meaning that the government would monitor and limit one’s movement. Worrying about the inconvenience and potential discrimination caused by not having a green pass, a vast majority of Tianjin’s residents comply with the testing requirement.

截至 2 月中旬,天津大约有 20 栋公寓楼被列为封控区或管控区。没有新增确诊病例的区域被列为防范区。在防范区,每个居民仍需进行强制性核酸检测。遵守检测规定人将获得一张电子绿色通行证,以便允许他们进入学校、超市和餐馆等公共区域。不遵守政府规定的人会持有橙色甚至红色通行证,这意味着这些人的行动将会受到政府和社区的监控和限制。由于担心没有绿色通行证可能带来的不便和潜在的歧视,绝大多数的天津市民都遵守了检测要求。

With cities across China implementing similar measures to deal with breakouts, China’s Zero-Covid Policy has come at a high cost. In addition to the visible costs of medical services and community management, there are also huge hidden economic costs. In Tianjin’s case, many state-owned enterprises are strictly monitored to follow the central government’s instructions to only re-open in batches, leaving thousands of unpaid employees to rely on their savings. Supply chain disruptions and shipping interruptions have forced private businesses to reduce production and bear the costs. Unfortunately, the government’s restrictions, which show no signs of stopping, are putting a substantial economic burden on this seaport city whose economy relies on imports and exports.


The more complicated hidden cost is on people’s mental health. Endless rounds of testing, the urgency of getting tested, and the fear of not having a green pass increase the psychological burden on the people of Tianjin. Usually, when a testing order is announced, everyone is in a hurry to finish within 1-2 days of the announcement to avoid an orange or red pass. This urgency poses considerable challenges to society. When Tianjin started its first round of testing on January 9, most testing management was conducted by volunteers such as high school students and homemakers. Though lacking basic medical knowledge and training, these warm-hearted people built makeshift testing sites in mere hours and voluntarily assisted the testing procedures in the following days.

然而,更复杂的隐藏成本是“清零政策”对人们的心理健康造成的负担。一轮又一轮的核酸检测、检测的紧迫感、以及对拿不到绿色通行证的担忧,都增加了天津人民的心理负担。通常,当政府宣布检测指示时,每个人都急着在 1-2 天内完成检测,以免健康码变成橙色或红色。这种紧迫感给人们带来了巨大的挑战。在 1月9日天津开始第一轮测试时,大部分检测管理由学生和家庭主妇自行组建的志愿者团队进行。虽然缺乏基本的医学知识和培训经验,但是这些热心群众在短短几个小时内搭建起临时检测点,并在接下来的几天内自愿协助检测程序。

Photo Credit: VOA News

But the testing process wasn’t going smoothly. In the suburbs of Tianjin, people started lining up in the middle of the night to get tested first thing in the morning, causing chaos and longer waiting times. In areas without adequate testing sites, people typically waited five to eight hours in the freezing cold. Large crowds, complaints, and cutting in line occasionally triggered quarrels and fights. Most volunteers, not knowing how to handle these conflicts, usually panicked and failed to maintain discipline or finish the testing. Many describe their first testing experience in categorically negative terms. Though recent rounds of testing have become more efficient, people are still burdened by endless tests and the fear of testing positive. By mid-February, most prevention area residents had completed five to ten rounds of testing, depending on their proximity to the closed and control areas.

然而,检测过程似乎并不顺利。在天津郊区,人们为了抢先检测,在深夜就开始排队等候,造成现场的混乱和通常更长的等待时间。在没有充足检测点的地区,人们在一月的严寒中通常要等待5-8个小时。大量的人群、无休止的抱怨和屡禁不止的插队现象偶尔会引发争吵和打架。大多数志愿者不知道如何处理正在发生的冲突;相反,他们通常会惊慌失措,无法维持现场秩序,甚至无法完成检测。许多人对他们的第一次检测体验的评价相对负面。在接下来的检测中,虽然志愿者的效率越来越高,但人们仍然要承受一轮又一轮的检测和对检测出阳性的担忧。到 2 月中旬,大多数防范区居民已经完成了5-10轮检测。检测的次数一般取决于与他们离封控区和管控区的距离。

How do average citizens view this strict and seemingly inflexible Zero-Covid Policy? In fact, most people are still supportive. Many are keenly aware of the potential consequences of more new cases (i.e., public panic and social instability), so they tend to view the government’s policy as a necessary measure. “I think the government is doing its best,” said Bei, a high school teacher in Tianjin. “After all, China is a country with a highly dense population, and the risk of spreading the virus is unimaginable.” 

那么,普通群众是如何看待这种严格且看似僵化的“清零政策”的呢?事实上,很多人依旧表示支持。许多人认为,更多新增病例会给社会带来不可估量的后果——公众恐慌以及社会混乱。因此,他们更倾向于将这种政策视为一种必要措施。“我认为政府已经做的很好了,”天津的一名高中教师贝塞克说, “毕竟,中国是一个人口密度很大的国家,病毒大范围传播会带来难以想象的风险。”

In addition to their genuine public health concerns, people are heavily influenced by government propaganda, which describes China as the safest country in the world. Thus, people are generally more than willing to cooperate with government policies for the sake of their national pride. “With one of the lowest case numbers and death rates, now we can tell which country cares more about human rights. The U.S. is being hypocritical, as its government only intends to understate the severe outcomes caused by their mistakes. Rather, our government is the one who truly cares for the people,” said Xiao, an employee of a state-owned business in Tianjin.


Notwithstanding this broad popular support, the government’s policy is losing its credibility among some people, including Bu, an employee in a private company. “I don’t think the policy should still be this extreme, given that we’ve almost gotten used to the pandemic after two years. We are expecting a turning point towards a more flexible policy,” Hesitantly, Bu also says the testing procedure is both perfunctory and unprofessional. “The first time, they just used a swab to dip the tip of my tongue… I don’t think the test result is valid.” Bu also expressed deep concern for his parents’ safety as they were waiting in the crowd to get tested. Given that door-to-door services are typically in short supply, most senior citizens and disabled people are still required to show up in crowded testing spots, which, ironically, increases their chances of getting exposed. 

尽管得到了广泛的民众支持,但“清零政策”在一些群体中开始失去可信度,包括一家私企的员工卜凯欣。“已经两年多了,对疫情我们早就习惯了。我觉得政策不应该仍然这么严格。我希望能有一个转折点,能有更灵活的政策。”卜还犹豫地说,测试程序很敷衍,而且不太专业。 “第一次检测的时候,他们只是用棉签蘸了我的舌尖……我觉得那种检测没什么意义。” 看到自己年迈的父母挤在人群中等候检测时,卜也表示了对老年人健康的深切担忧。由于上门检测服务经常供给短缺,很多老年人和行动不便者仍然需要亲自前往拥挤的测试点。讽刺的是,这反而增加了他们接触病毒的几率。

People have divergent opinions regarding the reasons for such a strict policy. In addition to the common view that the government genuinely cares about people’s health and safety, Bu thinks the government aims to maintain stability before the 20th Party Congress, which will be held in Beijing later this year. Xiao argues that by implementing these strict policies, the Chinese government is trying to show the world that China is a powerful, unified, and adaptable nation. Even those who initially supported this policy are starting to doubt the government’s real intentions. However, they still cooperate since openly questioning the government is commonly viewed as a bad-faith attack on Chinese society. 


How long will this go on? With the Winter Olympics in full swing, many Chinese citizens are looking forward to China’s reopening and a more flexible COVID policy in the next few months. Still, the government does not seem to be seriously planning an exit. Even if some local governments are claiming to re-examine their COVID policies, we can only expect a months-long, step-by-step response, not an immediate solution. 

这种情况还会持续多久? 随着冬奥会如火如荼地展开,许多中国公民都期待着一个更为宽松的抗疫政策,期待着中国能在未来几个月内重新开放。但政府似乎并没有计划要退出它的“清零政策”。即使一些地方政府决定要重新审视他们的抗疫政策,我们也只能看到一个通常长达数月的、步骤繁多的放开政策,而不是一个有效解决问题的方案。

Policy changes could be encouraged if more and more people air their doubts about the government’s current COVID strategy, but this seems unlikely to occur in the short term. Sadly, fewer and fewer Chinese people feel comfortable speaking out in the highly politicized atmosphere that has prevailed during the pandemic. China is unlikely to quickly shift to a less strict COVID policy in the next few months, and the city with the next outbreak is likely to suffer hardships similar to those experienced in Tianjin.


As requested, all names of interviewees are fictional.


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