China Gets Real
The tone of Chinese policy has shifted quite radically since October’s Party Congress, when President Xi secured his position as the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao. On the foreign policy front, he has become notably more conciliatory towards the West and somewhat less supportive of Putin, while on the domestic front he has sounded less hostile to private enterprise and more concerned about growth. Whether all that is tactics or strategy remains to be seen.
But when it comes to COVID there isn’t much room for doubt: policy is changing in both tone and substance, and at impressive speed.
What that amounts to is that Beijing has now accepted that Omicron is both irrepressible and significantly less dangerous than previous dominant strains. At which point the risk reward - indeed the whole rationale - of the COVID zero policy falls apart.
There is plenty of evidence for both those proportions from other countries, but with a caveat: other countries have successfully opened up only once they had acquired a high level of herd resistance (full vaccination plus prior infections).
We have seen that, for example, in Japan and Korea - as shown below. You could even say that a relatively mild but highly contagious strain of COVID like the early forms of Omicron is actually an opportunity to create strong herd immunity, since there will be a significant number of breakthrough infections that act as de facto booster shots for those already vaccinated, and other infections will create immunity amongst those reluctant to be vaccinated. (This is not necessarily desirable for older people but highly desirable for the younger population).
China is a highly vaccinated country - with the exception of the very elderly (over 80s). But Chinese vaccinations are generally thought to be less effective than Western ones in preventing infection.
But that is not the real point: the question about Chinese vaccines is whether they convey high levels of T-cell based protection against severe disease. In which case, China would be well placed to follow the pattern of Japan and Korea (and indeed of most other countries) shown in figures 1 and 2.
We don’t have definitive data on that but what evidence there is is encouraging.
The bottom line?
Cases will sky rocket but severe illness probably won’t (so long as China urgently does more to protect the truly vulnerable). Deploying newer vaccines at the same time will ensure that the country becomes very highly resistant to current strains of COVID, and probably to most future strains too.
It could be chaotic for a few months but as the year wears on opening up in the economy should accelerate and broaden into a more fully fledged recovery.