China adjusts its Covid policy – without fundamentally changing its approach

On 10 November, the newly formed Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC) gathered to discuss 20 new measures (二十条) to “further optimize epidemic prevention and control work”. The following day, China’s National Health Commission (NHC) published a notice to lay out the Party leadership’s reasoning and the “20 measures”.


The 20 measures are, on the surface, practical “optimizations” (优化) towards less strict Covid measures, also to “minimize the impact of the pandemic on economic and social development”. International travel to China will become easier, secondary close contacts will no longer be traced and the scope of lockdowns and duration of quarantine will shrink, while preparations for further relaxations shall be intensified focusing on vaccinations, more ICU capacity and treatment medication as key measures.


But as the NHC notice makes very clear, ”SARS-CoV-2 is still mutating”, and “the prevention and control are still serious and complex”, meaning that the party leadership is not changing the overall guideline of “Three Unswervings” – protecting the people and lives, preventing Covid cases from both inside and outside China (外防输入、内防反弹), and upholding the "Dynamic Clearing" (动态清零). The notice mentions twice and explicitly that these 20 measures are “not relaxing prevention and control”, and that the government will “resolutely hold the bottom line of not having a large-scale epidemic”.


As part of some still very few regional and small-scale “trials”, some smaller cities have dropped a larger part of their Covid measures last week, including completely stopping public PCR tests, fully resuming schools and production, etc. Over the weekend, however, one of these “trial-cities”, Shijiazhuang, already had to go into a full lockdown after a flare-up of new cases. Larger cities such as Beijing and Guangzhou, on the other hand, remained cautious anyhow and are still in a “waiting” mode, with Beijing’s Chaoyang District also again in lockdown.

So, likely as a result also of the growing economic headwinds, the “20 measures” are an attempt by the party leadership to fine-tune the costly Covid measures without running the risk of new substantial flare-ups. Although the measures point at the direction of relaxation, Chinese citizens’ views of the virus and attitudes toward social controls also suggest that the entire society has not built up a strong enough psychologic tolerance for the virus to lift all pandemic-related controls. Taking into account this social circumstance, these measures don’t amount to a fundamental change yet. Unchanged from previously, a lot will still hinge on the success of the re-stated intention to vaccinate more elderly.


As is already becoming clear these days, with the rising case numbers in China these days (2,225 new cases on Nov. 21st) and more so expected in winter, there is no timeline as to when measures will be further relaxed. More lockdowns can be thus expected.