China: COVID-19 Wave Reaches Countryside

Welcome to Foreign PolicyThe China Brief.

This week’s highlight: China The COVID-19 crisis reaches rural areas as the new year begins, Beijing appoints a former ambassador to the United States as foreign ministeragain The new president of Brazil courts in China.

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Welcome to Foreign PolicyThe China Brief.

This week’s highlight: China The COVID-19 crisis reaches rural areas as the new year begins, Beijing appoints a former ambassador to the United States as foreign ministeragain The new president of Brazil courts in China.

If you would like to receive the China Brief in your inbox every Wednesday, please subscribe here.

China’s COVID-19 Crisis Deepens

Another new year in China, another round of the country’s COVID-19 crisis as the virus continues to spread beyond major cities. In his New Year’s address on December 31, Chinese President Xi Jinping directly acknowledged the outbreak: “We have now entered a new phase of the COVID response where serious challenges remain,” he said.

Xi’s statement was wrapped up in speculation about a heroic struggle, but it marked a rare nod to a situation where the gap between suffering on the ground and the tone of the state media seems wider than ever. Hospitals are crowded in many places; one reasonable estimate suggests that 9,000 people die a day in China. In the northeast of the country, friends report that “Do you already have this virus?” instead of the traditional greeting, “Have you eaten?”

China has stopped releasing accurate COVID-19 data. Even the World Health Organization (WHO), which has taken an aggressive approach to China’s transparency, called the Chinese government directly. As many countries such as the United States and Australia introduce new screening requirements for Chinese travelers, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. said these policies were “understandable” in the “lack of comprehensive information” from China.

Experts fear that something different will emerge from China’s outbreak. Data from the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention do not show that so far, but the WHO is keen to get more information. Meanwhile, misinformation about the virus is spreading within China, ranging from government claims that traditional Chinese medicine products can be used for treatment to conspiracy theories.

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The worst of the first wave seems to have intensified in cities like Beijing and Shanghai, where life is slowly returning to the streets. But the countryside is already being hit, with reports of many deaths in some villages and flooded hospitals where workers work or fall ill themselves.

There are several factors that could make COVID-19 even more devastating in rural China. Even in normal times, health services in rural areas are inadequate, with less than half the number of critical care beds per capita compared to urban areas and a severe shortage of staff. Although officially the rural population is relatively young, in reality young people flock to the cities in search of work, leaving the villages full of very old and very young people.

Despite repeated pressures, the elderly in China are not vaccinated, partly because many elderly people live in hard-to-reach areas and partly because of skepticism about the vaccine; and are at high risk of dying from COVID-19.

The Spring Festival, or Chinese New Year, on Jan. 22 you may aggravate the rural problem. The so-called spring migration begins about two weeks before the holiday, as migrant workers collect their wages and return home to their villages to celebrate with family. That could fuel the rapid spread of COVID-19 in rural areas.

Many migrant workers have not been able to go home for three years, since the 2020 violence erupted just before the Spring Festival, and the government’s downplaying of the virus may have led people to believe that the opportunity to spend time together is worth it.

The wave will also delay the hopes of revitalizing the rural economy. On December 24, Xi again called on young people to revitalize the countryside, but that is unlikely. Rural areas cannot provide youth either culturally or economically. Back in the days of job assignments for university graduates, which lasted until the 1990s, the government could send people to remote areas as teachers, nurses, or doctors. But even record youth unemployment is unlikely to tempt more people to rural China, especially as COVID-19 spreads.

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The new minister of Beijing. Qin Gang, who has been China’s ambassador to the United States for about 18 months, has been named foreign minister, a move that has been expected for several weeks. The foreign minister is an incredibly delicate position within the Chinese state, which always prioritizes domestic affairs. Like other figures raised during the Party Congress last October and in the months since, Qin is an ally of Xi with little influence of his own.

But Qin’s statement on Twitter on Tuesday that he was “very impressed” by the Americans is a sign of the attempted warming between China and the United States since Xi met with US President Joe Biden at the G-20 summit in Bali, Indonesia, last November. . However, China continues to carry out anti-American propaganda at home, and the leadership has kept those so-called wolf warrior diplomats in their positions, while Washington still believes that Beijing is its greatest enemy.

Still, it’s a good sign that the two sides of the new cold war are ready to negotiate on principle, if nothing else.

Lula in the Chinese court. Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who has just been re-elected for a second term, continues his policy of supporting China in foreign affairs. He put Beijing at the top of the agenda on his first foreign trip—to give Xi a warm welcome. Despite his anti-communist rhetoric, Lula’s predecessor, Jair Bolsonaro, has also turned to Beijing amid political divisions over his far-right policies. Lula appears to be looking to drive Brazil out of the geopolitical blocs, reviving the spirit of Cold War-era neutrality.

The prominent death of COVID-19? Chinese authorities’ reluctance to acknowledge deaths from COVID-19—the official number since the end of the zero-COVID policy on December 7 stands at 12—has fueled speculation as celebrities, especially the elderly, die of unspecified illnesses. . In some cases, family confirmed online that their relative died of COVID-19. Whatever credibility the government had built on its initial success with zero-COVID is now gone, due to the gap between apparent losses and official figures.

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At some point, Beijing can change course to regain credibility, perhaps by slightly conceding the death rate after the worst of the crisis has passed. I suspect that the authorities currently do not know how to handle this change without making Xi look weak or inconsistent.

FP’s Top Reads This Week

Why Germany Learned the Wrong Lessons from History by Edward Lucas

10 conflicts to watch in 2023 by Comfort Ero and Richard Atwood

5 ways the US-China Cold War will differ from the last one by Jo Inge Bekkevold

Bad economic data is piling up. China’s manufacturing activity fell for a fifth month in a row in December, adding to a series of tough economic indicators from labor to spending. The image appears to have played a key role in persuading Xi to end the zero-COVID policy, but it also cast doubt on what he said during his New Year’s speech that the economy should grow by 4.4 percent in 2022. time to spend, will be an important test of consumer confidence.

After three zero-COVID years, there is no doubt the need to close everything from spa days to restaurants, but a new wave of COVID-19 has kept people indoors out of fear for the past month. I expect that any major growth will not come until this first wave has subsided, but even so, consumers will remain risk-averse, not because individual incomes have suffered during the past three years. Rebuilding savings is more likely than a full-scale boom.

Canada bans foreign property buyers. Last Sunday, a two-year ban on foreign nationals receiving property went into effect in Canada, excluding refugees and students. Chinese investment is one of the main targets of this initiative; it has been blamed for driving up housing prices in cities like Vancouver, where Chinese buyers make up one-third of new property buyers.

The high-profile coverage given to Huawei CEO Meng Wanzhou’s luxury home while he was out on bail in China has drawn more attention to the issue. If Canada’s methods succeed, other countries with high levels of Chinese property investment and growing distrust of Beijing—such as Australia and the United Kingdom—may follow suit.


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