Apart from catching up with family and friends – and breathing in some of England's unbeatable country air! – what I most valued from my recent UK trip was the chance to get some perspective outside of the China bubble. A lot has been written about how Western countries have handled the pandemic very poorly in comparison to China. Beijing's zero tolerance for COVID-19 was a highly effective strategy during the first year of the pandemic, when a lot less was known about the novel coronavirus.
But the pandemic has now reached a point where we are much better acquainted with COVID. It is still a very unpleasant and potentially life-threatening illness. But thanks to vaccines and improved treatments, hospitalisations and fatalities from COVID are now increasingly rare. Despite this, Beijing continues to treat COVID as a more deadly, unknown quantity than it really is, stubbornly sticking to the extreme quarantine and testing methods inherited from the SARS crisis of 2003.
My own, inexpert opinion is that such an approach has become disproportionate to the threat now presented by COVID. As most of the world is learning – even countries like Australia and Singapore that have shared China's zero tolerance approach – the virus is becoming endemic and something that we must learn to live with as a global society. China's attempts to eliminate it by keeping borders effectively closed is simply not sustainable in the long run. Nor is it practical to lock down entire communities every time there are a handful of cases, Putian in Fujian Province being the latest example.
Why then does China continue to follow this path? It's true that China does not have the same standard of healthcare facilities and hospital capacity as many developed countries. And Chinese cities are very densely populated, making them particularly vulnerable to more intense surges of infection that can overwhelm the public health system, as happened in Wuhan.
But the cynic in me says that China's use of extreme quarantine and testing is not primarily about public health. Rather, it serves a culture of political performance that exists within the Chinese bureaucracy. This is because COVID, like any major emergency in China, is first and foremost a political crisis for Beijing. An uncontrolled epidemic poses a threat to regime continuity in China in a way that it does not for the Western liberal democracies.
In addition, China's success at containing COVID has become a source of national pride and political legitimacy for the Communist Party. And China's economy has, for the most part, been booming, despite the occasional isolated lockdown and lack of foreign visitors. Changing tack would threaten all of this, and would likely prove unpopular with the Chinese public. For now at least, Chinese people have come to value stability and normality over the chaotic alternative presented in state media depictions of the West.
Viewed in this light, there is currently no obvious end in sight to China's strict border controls. Indeed, the imminent completion of an enormous, 5,000-room international quarantine facility in the southern megapolis of Guangzhou shows that Beijing plans to quarantine inbound travellers for a long time to come. And so the ease of international travel that we took for granted pre-COVID appears unlikely to return to China for a long time, if at all.
It is possible that things might be relaxed following next year's Winter Olympiad and the Communist Party's 20th Congress. But that is far from guaranteed, especially if China's economy keeps being resilient, and other countries continue to have high levels of COVID cases and concerns over new variants. So where do we go from here?
For expats like myself, border restrictions fundamentally change the terms on which we moved overseas, being able to return home once or twice a year, and travel on a whim to other countries. For Chinese nationals, too – especially the wealthy and middle classes – the current border closures have had a profound impact. Outbound travel had been booming before the pandemic. And while many people in China feel thankful for the country's success in handling COVID, many will also be yearning to venture out, whether for work, study, vacation, or reunion with family and friends.
But the wider significance of China's continued border controls will go far beyond individual inconvenience. China has effectively returned to a state of closure not seen since the 1970s, and this has happened at a time when Xi Jinping was already reinvigorating the illiberal Leninist traditions of China's past. In effect, China has gone from the policy of Reform and Opening which characterised the last four decades, to a new state of Counter-Reform and Closure, in the space of just a few years.
It is impossible to know how long these dual trends of closure and counter-reform will continue. But for as long they do persist, it should be a concern for us all, not just because of how it may impact our personal travel plans, but because of its potential to widen an already-large gulf in understanding between China and the West.
Header image: China's COVID-19 response was centre stage at a pageant to mark the Communist Party's centenary this year (Thomas Peter/Reuters).