Beijing’s zero-Covid reversal threatens new front in confronation with the West

The US, WHO and EU have questioned the reliability of data offered by the Asian giant, which claims to have the latest coronavirus wave sweeping the country ‘under control’

Coronavirus pandemic
A Shanghai hospital full of coronavirus patients.STAFF (REUTERS)

China’s 180-degree turn in its fight against the coronavirus pandemic is threatening to cause another confrontation between Beijing and the West. After a massive wave of new infections started sweeping across the Asian giant a few weeks ago when the Chinese authorities decided to shelve a strict zero-Covid policy following unprecedented social protests, countries including the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Italy, Spain and Japan have imposed restrictions upon Chinese travelers entering their territories. On Wednesday, the European Union added itself to that list, recommending “strongly” that member nations demand negative Covid-19 tests from “all passengers arriving from China.”

Meanwhile, the World Health Organization (WHO) has accused Beijing of a lack of transparency in its reporting of infections and Covid-related deaths, provoking a sharp rebuke from the Chinese authorities, who stated the change in policy came about due to a “scientific evaluation” executed through “prudent planning,” adding that information is being shared with the international community in “an open and transparent manner.”

Mao Ning, spokesman for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said Thursday that Beijing has maintained open lines with the WHO since the beginning of the pandemic. “Facts have proven that China has always maintained close communication with the WHO and shared information and data on the epidemic in a timely, open and transparent manner in accordance with law,” Mao told a press conference, adding the situation in China “is under control.” The spokesman added that China hopes all parties will “take science-based and proportionate response measures not targeting any specific country” and “avoid remarks and actions that politicize the epidemic.”

However, the figures being reported by Beijing have failed to convince the West. “The Health Security Committee regrets the lack of reliable data on Covid-19 in terms of cases, hospital admissions and deaths, as well as ICU capacity and occupancy in China,” a panel of EU experts wrote in an opinion that served as the basis for the coordination of measures recommended by the commission on Wednesday.

Despite the assurances of the Chinese authorities, concerns about the data resulted in a virtual meeting on Thursday between the WHO and a Beijing medical and diplomatic delegation to try and dispel them, according to Reuters.

Beijing has also reacted to the measures being put in place for Chinese travelers, asking that they be proportionate and allow people to travel normally and without discrimination. Restrictions should not be used for “political manipulation,” Mao stated, adding that China would respond to international restrictions by employing “corresponding measures in response to different situations, based on the principle of reciprocity.” China continues to impose mandatory quarantines on passengers arriving from overseas, one of the last throes of the zero-Covid policy. However, after almost three years of being practically sealed off from the world, Beijing will shelve this measure as of January 8, although it will continue to ask for a negative PCR test from international travelers.

Covid China
Patients lie on beds in a hallway at the emergency department of Zhongshan Hospital, Shanghai, January 3, 2023. REUTERS

China’s official Covid figures

The Chinese health authorities reported a single Covid-related death over the previous 24 hours on Thursday and 24 in total since December 7, when Beijing ended its zero-Covid policy. To date, official figures state that there have been 5,259 Covid-related deaths since the beginning of the pandemic three years ago.

This data contrasts greatly with the images emerging from hospitals and mortuaries in megacities such as Beijing and Shanghai, while local authorities have reported soaring infections that do not tally with central figures. A Western health source based in the Chinese capital who has first-hand knowledge of the testimony of medical personnel in the country described the official data as a “hoax.”

The director of the WHO’s Health Emergencies Programme has accused the Chinese authorities of underreporting the number of deaths and hospitalizations from the virus, while US President Joe Biden also expressed his concern about the situation: “I know they’re very sensitive when we suggest they haven’t been that forthcoming,” he said in Kentucky.

Although the EU has recommended imposing restrictions on Chinese travelers, experts believe that the current coronavirus wave “will not have a big impact” due to high vaccination levels and the number of people who have already caught Covid-19 and recovered.

The explosion of coronavirus in the Asian giant when most of the rest of the world appeared to have put Covid-19 restrictions behind it risks opening another front in a simmering confrontation with Beijing. In the EU, particularly, misgivings toward China have grown in recent years, leading to increased tension on several points: one of these is undoubtedly trade; another is geostrategic, due to Beijing’s calculated ambiguity towards Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which China has not condemned. This paved the way for the US to convince other members of NATO, of which 24 of the 27 EU member states are members, to target China as a “challenge” to security.

For Beijing, another potential clash with the West carries a straightforward explanation, very similar to the manual China applies to other confrontations, ranging from the technological war with the United States to criticism over its stance in the Ukraine war. “Outside the blinding and deafening bubbles constructed by certain Western media and politicians with unfounded prejudices and self-invented myths, facts and statistics show that China has overcome the waves of Covid-19 outbreaks in a selective and scientifically based manner,” a lengthy editorial published Wednesday by the official news agency, Xinhua, states.

The article goes on to suggest the same voices that criticized China’s zero-Covid strategy are now criticizing Beijing for opening up, describing it as “self-invented conjecture.”

“Maybe it’s not about Covid policies after all,” the article concludes. “Maybe it’s just about lashing out at China.”

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