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Covid-19: China faces the dilemma of containment in Beijing

The hypothesis of a confinement of the population in Beijing is becoming clearer as the number of confirmed contaminations with Covid-19 exceeded 100 cases on Wednesday. But such a solution after the quarantine of Shanghai residents for more than a month has a potentially very high economic and political cost.

The threshold of 100 cases has just been exceeded. Beijing now has 113 cases of Covid-19 contamination, Chinese health authorities announced on Wednesday April 27. The pressure is increasing on the local government while 1,300 kilometers away, in Shanghai, strict confinement has been imposed on the population for a month in an attempt to stem the spread of the highly contagious Omicron variant.

Do not repeat the mistakes of Shanghai

Especially since the latest contamination figure in the Chinese capital does not yet take into account the cases that will be identified during the big wave of screening launched on Sunday April 24. The authorities have, in fact, imposed on the 21 million residents of Beijing to undergo three tests over five days.

No way for the local government to repeat Shanghai’s mistakes. The screenings had only started there after more than 1,000 contaminations. Too late to contain the epidemic without resorting to the heavy artillery of the “zero Covid” policy: strict containment. The drastic measures still in force have led to a rare public expression of anger in a country under a regime that has little tolerance for political dissent.

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The Beijing authorities are repeating for the moment that there is no question of confinement like in Shanghai, while recognizing that “the epidemic situation is complex and severe”, indicated Tian Wei, a spokesperson for the local government. , tuesday.

In the city, certain restrictions are already beginning to be put in place. This is particularly the case in the Chaoyang district, where a majority of contaminations in the capital have been identified. This is one of the busiest and most important districts of the capital: it hosts most of the embassies and is home to the shops of Western luxury brands and the most chic restaurants and bars.

But he became abnormally calm. Several blocks of buildings have already been confined and the streets are almost deserted, noted the South China Morning Post. The messages retransmitted by the loudspeakers inside the supermarkets to ensure that the stalls are well stocked and that there will be no shortage like in Shanghai accentuate the very particular atmosphere which reigns in this district, says the New York Times.

A little further south, in the district of Tongzhou, schools no longer welcome children. Several outbreaks of infections in Beijing have been identified in schools, and the municipality especially does not want confinement in this politically very important district since it houses the local government.

Economic impact in China and beyond

The Beijing authorities are not the only ones hoping to have reacted quickly enough. The central government also does not want to hear about a total containment of the Chinese capital. Not sure, indeed, that the country – or even the world – can afford it.

First, from an economic point of view. The measures imposed in Shanghai demonstrated that the “zero Covid” policy had a significant cost. Even if the extent of the economic shock has yet to be determined, “we know that in Shanghai, the local economy – local shops and restaurants, for example – have suffered a lot, as has port activity, which will have an impact on the value chain and the export of spare parts”, underlines Mary-Françoise Renard, specialist in the Chinese economy at the University of Clermont Auvergne. “We must not forget that Shanghai is the main supplier of spare parts for the global automotive industry,” said Xin Sun, a specialist in Chinese economic policy at King’s College London.

>> To see4: Report in China: in Shanghai, the “zero Covid” policy undermined by the Omicron variant

Data released in early April on economic activity in Shanghai since 1er January hint at the extent to which this long confinement has caused economic damage. “These figures show that after sustained growth over the first two months, there was a sudden halt in March, even though the strictest measures – such as total containment – ​​were only put in place. ‘in April. So I expect negative growth in April,” explains Xin Sun.

A shutdown of Beijing “would of course increase the impact of these measures, even if the capital does not have the economic weight of Shanghai”, affirms Mary-Françoise Renard. For this specialist, this would be especially bad news for the service sector, which represents “83% of Beijing’s economic activity“.

A confinement of the capital would certainly mark the end of the 5% growth in 2022 that the government had set itself as a target. “The confinement in Shanghai has already led the IMF to lower this estimate, and a similar situation in Beijing would confirm that China must very largely revise its ambitions”, estimates Frédéric Rollin, investment strategy adviser who follows the Chinese economy at Pictet Asset Management.

This cessation of activity in two of the main economic and political centers of the country “will most likely also have a butterfly effect outside the Chinese borders”, predicts Mary-Françoise Renard. Especially in the current context of rising prices. “There have been a multiplicity of inflationary shocks since the start of the pandemic – stoppage of international trade, rise in energy prices, war in Ukraine – to which must be added the disruption of exports due to confinements”, analyzes Frédéric Rollin .

Politically impossible?

But the puzzle for China is not just economic. “With Beijing, we must also take into account the political repercussions of confinement,” notes Zeno Leoni, China specialist at King’s College London. The institutional capital is the city par excellence “in which the Chinese Communist Party does not want to give the impression of losing control”, underlines this expert.

And with the Omicron variant, no scenario is satisfactory. Not locking down risks putting power in the face of an uncontrolled spread of the virus, while strict confinement could lead the people of Beijing to join the residents of Shanghai in their challenge to the “zero Covid” policy.

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“If the suffering of the populations in these two metropolises is spread out in broad daylight, there would be reason to question the official discourse which has been to say that China has managed the pandemic better than Western countries. It would be unacceptable for the power, “said Xin Sun.

Especially since 2022 is politically very important for Xi Jinping. “The XXand Chinese Communist Party Congress – during which Xi Jinping is to be reappointed – is to be held this fall in Beijing and the regime has no desire for this to happen in a city still traumatized by strict confinement,” Zeno said. Leoni.

For him, there are two scenarios for the capital: “Either the authorities are convinced that they can overcome the epidemic in Beijing thanks to a total containment of short duration and they will do it, or the situation in Shanghai drags on causing fear of the same thing for the capital, in which case the power will seek to avoid quarantine for all the inhabitants at the same time”, estimates this sinologist.

There would be a last option: recognize that the “zero Covid” policy is less effective against the Omicron variant and adopt a more flexible strategy. But that’s impossible, believes Xin Sun. “Xin Jinping appropriated this policy and abandoning it would mean that he was wrong, which is unimaginable,” he said. In short, sparing the president’s pride risks costing the Chinese dearly.

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