TAIPEI, Taiwan (AP) – Wang Lijie planned to spend three days in the Gobi Desert last month to admire the famous poplar forest as its trees turned golden yellow.
Instead, the Beijing resident has been stuck for more than three weeks, mostly in quarantine, after authorities discovered a cluster of COVID-19 cases in a nearby city. He was among more than 9,000 tourists trapped in Ejin Banner, a remote part of China’s Inner Mongolia region of Gobi.
As vaccination rates rise in many parts of the world, and even countries that previously had strict COVID containment strategies are gently easing restrictions, China is doubling down on its zero-tolerance policy.
China pioneered this approach – strict lockdowns, multiple rounds of mass testing and centralized quarantine – during the world’s first major coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan. And that continues to this day, despite the fact that he claims to have fully vaccinated 77% of his 1.4 billion people and has begun boosters.
“The price is really quite high, but compared to giving it up, relaxing (zero-tolerance policy), the price is even higher,” Zhong Nanshan, a leading government doctor, said in a recent TV interview.
The impact of restrictions is small but unpredictable. Unlucky travelers may find themselves in the wrong place and at the wrong time as tourists in the Gobi Desert, some of whom were sent by bus for 18 hours to end their quarantine in another city. Beijing residents have complained on the Internet that they are going on a business trip and cannot return home.
In a sign of the impact these regulations could have on even thriving businesses, the highly popular hot food chain, Haidilao, has decided to close 300 establishments in part due to the pandemic and is scaling back plans to add 1,200 new ones. The tension was particularly felt in places like Ruili, a city in the southwest that has been blocked on multiple occasions this year.
But for the authorities in Beijing, controlling the virus has become a source of pride, a powerful propaganda tool, and proof of what they say is an excellent form of governance. They often trumpet their success in maintaining relatively low death rates, especially in contrast to the United States, whose response to COVID-19 was described by a Foreign Office spokesman as “a complete failure.”
China has recorded about 4,600 deaths – compared with over 755,000 in the United States, a country with less than a quarter of the population.
“It becomes part of the official narrative that promotes this approach and links it to the superiority of the Chinese political system,” said Yangzhong Huang, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
It is impossible to say how popular this policy is, as opinion polls are rare and criticism is often censored. When Zhang Wenhong, a Shanghai doctor who has been compared to senior U.S. health official Anthony Fauci, briefly spoke about the prospects of living with the virus, he was shut down with official criticism and plagiarism investigations.
But the head of China’s Centers for Disease Control, Gao Fu, recently suggested that the country could open up if 85% are vaccinated – a sign that the government is aware that at least some want it.
Over the past three and a half weeks, Wang has passed 18 COVID-19 tests. However, he is not complaining. He can work remotely and has begun vlogging about his daily life by interacting with the people of Inner Mongolia on the Internet.
“No matter how much time you donated or how much money you spent in the face of life, in front of health, it’s not worth mentioning,” Wang said. “For everyone’s health, to make society more stable, some people must make sacrifices.”
But China’s strategy sets it apart as many countries move on to trying to survive with the virus, especially as it continues to mutate and vaccines fail to completely prevent infection. In particular, New Zealand, which has long followed a zero-tolerance approach, announced a cautious plan last month to ease restrictions despite the ongoing outbreak. Australia, Thailand and Singapore – all of which have imposed severe travel restrictions during most of the pandemic – have also begun to open their borders.
China, by contrast, cut the number of international passenger flights allowed to the country by 21% last month to 408 flights per week until the end of March, while increasing the number of cargo flights by 28%.
In Singapore, which has begun to allow entry without quarantine for fully vaccinated travelers from certain countries, the number of new cases has jumped to thousands per day from less than 100 previously. But most of them don’t end up in the hospital.
“It’s completely unrealistic to think you can stay at zero,” said Dale Fisher, professor of medicine at the National University of Singapore.
But even if only a small percentage of those infected end up in hospitals, it could be a problem in China, with its huge population – and it will be especially difficult for a government that has staked its reputation on keeping numbers very low.
“I think what worries government leaders, scientists and public health officials is that even a small discovery could lead to more serious outbreaks on a much larger scale,” said Huang of the Council on Foreign Relations.
Some of the most prominent examples of Chinese politics come from Ruili, which borders Myanmar on three sides and is struggling to contain the spread of the virus.
Videos of a 21-month-old boy with round cheeks that have been tested 78 times have gone viral on the internet. The boy’s father declined to be interviewed, but confirmed that he filmed videos that inspired sympathy but were also used as propaganda by the state media to show how powerful the Chinese citizens are.
One Ruili resident, who only gave his last name, Xu, said he lost track of how many tests he passed. In the midst of the quarantine, community volunteers threatened to fine him when he went to dump the trash.
To leave the city, he has to pay for seven days of quarantine at the hotel – just travel to a city located 10 kilometers (6 miles) from him. The restrictions ruined his business of selling jade from Myanmar.
At the end of October, the Ruili government announced that it would provide 1,000 yuan (about $ 150) to residents who faced difficulties, and that this would allow small and medium enterprises to defer loan payments.
In the Xinjiang region of western China, Li Hui was sealed for a month in the city of Ili, where several cases of infection were discovered in early October.
His mother, who lives in a nearby village, twisted her wrist, but at first was unable to come to the city for treatment due to restrictions. After much persuasion, he called an ambulance to take her to the hospital a week after the injury. He still cannot visit her.
“I don’t know how long the residents of Ili will survive,” he said. “I really can’t take this anymore.”
Associated Press researchers Chen Xi from Shanghai and Yu Bing from Beijing contributed.