Beijing is planning to keep its pandemic border restrictions in place for at least another year as officials fret over the emergence of new variants and a calendar of sensitive events, according to people familiar with the matter, despite a coronavirus vaccination campaign that has topped one billion doses.
The provisional timeline of the second half of 2022 was set during a mid-May meeting of the country’s cabinet, or State Council, attended by officials from China’s Foreign Ministry and National Health Commission, among other government bodies, one of the people said.
The cautious attitude is being driven by a pair of events that officials are eager to have go off without a hitch next year: the Winter Olympics in February and a once-a-decade power transition within the ruling Chinese Communist Party toward the end of the year. At the Communist Party Congress, Chinese leader
is widely expected to seek an additional term beyond the customary two-term limit.
By largely restricting new visas to those who have received a Chinese vaccine and maintaining requirements for an enforced hotel quarantine of at least 14 days upon arrival, Chinese officials have sought to neutralize risks from imported cases, the people said.
After the coronavirus first exploded in the central city of Wuhan last year, Chinese authorities initially condemned countries such as the U.S. that imposed restrictions on travel to and from China.
But as China contained the virus inside its borders and the situation worsened abroad, Beijing has been among the most fastidious in maintaining border controls. The country aggressively smothers outbreaks as they appear through a combination of targeted lockdowns, mass testing and centralized quarantines.
In recent weeks, China has ramped up its initially sluggish vaccination campaign. On Sunday, authorities said it had surpassed one billion shots. As of June 10, Our World in Data said that 16% of the country’s population had been fully vaccinated.
Vaccinations will likely slow to roughly 10 million doses a day by early August, from a peak of 20 million doses in early June, as the shots reach more remote places. By December, 80% of China’s population will have received at least one dose,
economists told clients in a June 6 note.
If China does ease restrictions, it is likely to first be on travel between the mainland and Hong Kong and Macau, the two special administrative regions that border the southern Chinese province of Guangdong, according to the people.
Hong Kong and Macau have enjoyed several weeks without any local infections, though Guangdong has been battling a wave of cases for the past month, making any near-term lifting of restrictions unlikely.
China would then relax requirements on countries with high vaccination rates and that have brought infection numbers under control, according to the people. Countries that recognize Chinese vaccines will most likely be considered first, the people said, adding that there is no timeline for loosening.
China’s State Council, Foreign Ministry and National Health Commission didn’t respond to requests for comment.
China hasn’t approved any Western vaccines listed by the World Health Organization for emergency use, though The Wall Street Journal reported in April that Beijing is planning to approve the vaccine developed by Germany’s
by July. U.S. regulators haven’t approved any Chinese vaccines.
Earlier this month, Feng Zijian, the former deputy head of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said at a conference that the timing of any shift from a zero Covid-19 strategy to one with more open borders would largely depend on a high vaccination rate and a consensus about whether some deaths are acceptable to the broader society.
Countries such as Britain and Chile boast some of the highest vaccination rates in the world but are still battling infection surges largely among the unvaccinated population, delaying plans to ease lockdowns.
In addition, clinical data indicate that Chinese vaccines, while able to protect against severe cases and hospitalization, are less effective at cutting transmission.
“This could allow the virus to still replicate, leading to outbreaks among the unvaccinated population or mutations against which the current vaccines are not effective,” said Jin Dong-Yan, a professor of molecular virology at the University of Hong Kong.
Chinese health officials have said that China-developed vaccines have proven effective against the current variants, including the more infectious Delta variant first detected in India. They said that while fully vaccinated people had been infected, they hadn’t become seriously ill and that the shots are being tested against the new strains.
The Chinese CDC has said it is studying the effectiveness of extra doses, including booster shots with its domestically developed vaccines as well as BioNTech’s, which uses a different technology, according to a person familiar with the matter.
China isn’t the only country that is waiting to open borders. In May, Australia said it would tentatively begin the process in mid-2022.
The organizers of the Beijing Olympics, which are set to begin Feb. 4, haven’t said whether foreign spectators will be allowed into the country. Organizers of next month’s Summer Games in Tokyo are allowing Japanese spectators and turning away foreigners.
While China’s tight border controls have fended off the virus, enabling the domestic economy to recover, “The reality of continued outbreaks and lingering restrictions does place a ceiling on how far that recovery can go,” said Cui Ernan, an analyst at research firm Gavekal Dragonomics.
It will also mean that international businesses in China will have had to operate in an impaired manner for more than a year, with foreign executives stranded offshore and face-to-face meetings virtually impossible, said Alan Beebe, president of the American Chamber of Commerce in China.
—Raffaele Huang in Beijing contributed to this article.
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