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China’s ‘zero Covid strategy’ stifles US-China relations

“A cost of this zero tolerance policy which, I think, is not fully understood … [that] the lack of people-to-people exchanges – with Chinese coming here and Americans going – actually worsens the relationship [because] there is a dehumanization, ”said Stephen A. Orlins, chairman of the National Committee on US-China Relations.

China’s zero Covid strategy relies on a rigorous system of quarantining, testing and isolating positive cases as well as community lockdowns and travel restrictions to mitigate the viral spread. This approach has been successful from a public health perspective. Johns Hopkins University data shows China recorded just 4,849 deaths from Covid-19, compared to 785,900 in the United States

The Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention released a modeling study last month that predicted that relaxing current Covid controls would create hundreds of thousands of new infections and inflict “a devastating impact on the medical system of the China and would cause great catastrophe within the nation. . “State media, meanwhile, are redoubling their efforts to defend the zero Covid strategy.

There are political imperatives to maintain these strict Covid control policies: President Xi Jinping wants to preserve his credibility for successful coronavirus control as the 20th Party Congress approaches at the end of next year, when it should largely solicit an unprecedented third. mandate of leader of China. The construction of new mass quarantine facilities designed to accommodate thousands of overseas arrivals indicates that the current quarantine system is becoming a permanent feature of inbound Chinese travel.

But a possible easing of entry and quarantine restrictions was one of the outcomes of last month’s virtual meeting between Xi and President Joe Biden. At the meeting, Xi “agreed to upgrade the expedited agreements, which will further improve economic and trade exchanges between China and the United States and boost the recovery of the two economies.”

Qin broadened Xi’s pledge by announcing reversal of approval on Thursday for what government calls “PU invitation letters” would be reduced to “no more than 10 working days”. The government will also make mandatory testing and quarantine “more convenient” through measures, including the creation of “quarantine bubbles” that could allow business travelers to meet face-to-face with colleagues, staff and customers based in Canada. China upon their arrival. Details of the fast-track plan will be released shortly, Qin said.

“Details matter, and we are eager to hear how the current long quarantine period might be changed. [and] What does the reference to a “bubble” mean to allow the arriving business traveler to work while ensuring the safety of others? Said Douglas K. Barry, senior communications director at the China-US Business Council.

A person familiar with the Chinese government’s plans for its “fast” business travel plan said it targets “the engineer or factory technician who has to fly in and out”, rather than expatriate workers long-term residents. The plan will allow companies “to move foreign workers to China and go directly to a workplace in a travel bubble,” the person said.

The first hurdle for business travelers looking to visit China in the age of Covid is acquiring a PU invitation letter from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. A lawyer who handles US-Chinese visas and asked to remain anonymous for fear of being seen as a critic of Chinese state policy told POLITICO that these applications go through a frosty bureaucratic process and are frequently denied . Applicants must be able to demonstrate the “urgent economic, commercial, scientific, technological or humanitarian” nature of their travel plans to China to improve their chances of approval, the attorney said. “The request must be examined by several levels of foreign affairs offices and it may take two to three months of back and forth with the authorities in order to obtain the invitation letter from the UP,” he said. added.

Business travelers with approved letters of invitation must then apply for a single-entry visa and prepare for a long quarantine upon arrival. The length of the quarantine, which varies depending on the point of arrival and final destination, ranges from 21 days in Shanghai to 28 days for travelers to Zhejiang, Anhui and Jiangsu provinces. Hong Kong requires visitors from the United States to undergo 21 days of mandatory quarantine at a designated quarantine hotel, followed by 7 days of “self-monitoring.”

Other municipalities impose even more draconian quarantines. “In Shenyang, it’s 28 days in quarantine, then 28 days in a hotel – it’s 56 days,” Ben Zhang, CEO of Washington-based Greater Pacific Industries, told Bellevue, a manufacturer and importer of original equipment which relied on Chinese suppliers. for over 25 years. “If I’m going to China on business, I want to talk to some decision makers in factories and move my projects forward. I can’t wait to have 56 days to do this.

Another US-based importer said the lengths and conditions of the quarantine discouraged him from traveling to China to meet with his staff. The result was a breakdown in the team cohesion and corporate culture that it took decades to create. He is scrambling to try and arrange meetings with staff in third countries to avoid Chinese quarantine restrictions.

“If I could pick the hotel and pick the food for the quarantine, that would be a different story,” he said. “But instead, you’re locked in a government-chosen hotel and eating plastic-wrapped food that’s cold, bland, and the same every day – it’s like being in jail.”

Travel from China to the United States has also slowed. Although the United States last month eased Covid-related entry restrictions for travelers from China to a requirement for proof of vaccination, the mandatory quarantine to re-enter China remains a strong deterrent, according to the report. National Committee on US-China Relations. noted. And anyone trying to leave China has to scramble to find scarce seats on significantly discounted flights. The country’s airlines regulator announced in October that international flights to and from China would remain at just 2.2% of pre-pandemic levels until at least April 2022. This shortage of airline seats in the face of high demand has caused ticket prices to skyrocket.

US-based businesses and organizations with operations in China have faced the past 21 months of disruption via virtual platforms, including Zoom. But their use limits the deductible and the depth of conversation required to achieve effective communication, especially between government officials, academics and business people. There are also concerns about possible wiretapping.

This has been particularly problematic for the two NCUSCR meetings of former U.S. government cabinet officials and senior Chinese leaders to informally discuss bilateral strategic and economic issues. “You can’t build a relationship on Zoom [and] what you lose is the informal unofficial [discussion] … when no one [else] listen, ”Orlins said.

Zhang says Zoom is canceling the possibility of creating “guanxi,” a concept of social and business networks that support each other and are essential to the success of businesses in China. “With guanxi, you frequently get better payment terms, shorter delivery times, better quality control, and more project attention,” Zhang said.

Zhang has pivoted some of its supply to parts of Southeast Asia with cheaper quarantine restrictions.

Efforts by US trade organizations to convince Chinese authorities to ease quarantine restrictions have come up against a brick wall. The president of the Hong Kong American Chamber of Commerce resigned last month to protest the territory’s three-week quarantine protocols. And 70% of U.S. Chamber of Commerce members in Shanghai reported difficulty recruiting and retaining expatriate staff due to quarantine restrictions, said Ker Gibbs, chairman of Amcham Shanghai.

“Quarantine is a challenge [and] we asked [Chinese authorities] if they could consider a more limited period of two to three days in central quarantine, after which people could self-isolate in a more comfortable situation at home or at another approved facility, ”Gibbs said.

The long-term impact of the zero Covid strategy on the Chinese economy – from aborted trade deals to port closures and disrupted supply chains – could be what ultimately prompts the Chinese government to rethink politics. Although experts say this is unlikely until Xi has safely secured his third term as head of China later next year.

“The rest of the world is watching because their economy depends on China’s ability to maintain its global supply chains,” said Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota. “When do other countries start to ask, ‘Do I need to rely on other supply chains because if [China] will I continue this policy will I still be at the whim [of zero-tolerance lockdowns?]. ‘”

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