Hutong Cat | Talk of the town: Will China open up after the party Congress?
Its possible opening up has been fed by announcements about Xi’s foreign travel itinerary and is being seen (or rather speculated) as a sign of China’s grand reopening to the world after having been incarcerated in pandemic prison for over two years.
The run-up to the Communist Party of China (CPC) Congress like the twice-a-decade one coming up on October 16, is open season for speculation.
Most speculated topics include who the new leaders will be, the number of members in the CPC politburo’s standing committee (the top decision-making body in the hierarchy), the composition of the central military commission, which amendment will be introduced to the party constitution and so on.
Whether President Xi Jinping will give himself a precedent-breaking third term is not a matter of speculation this time; whether he will get a new title is one.
This time, a once-a-lifetime topic — hopefully, one that will remain specific to the 20th CPC congress — has been added to the list: Will China open up after the congress, easing restrictions on international travel and doing away with its zero-Covid policy, often described as draconian, insensitive and an underhand admission that Chinese vaccines don’t work?
This post-congress conjecture on China’s possible opening up has been fed by announcements about Xi’s foreign travel itinerary, his first since January 2020, to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan this month, and Indonesia in November.
Xi’s stepping out of the mainland is being taken – or being speculated – as a sign of China’s grand reopening to the world after having been incarcerated in the pandemic prison for over two years.
Earlier this month, the Kazakhstan foreign ministry said Xi will meet Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev on September 14.
“At the invitation of the head of state, a state visit of the chairman of the People’s Republic of China to the Republic of Kazakhstan is planned for September,” Kazakh foreign ministry spokesperson Aybek Smadiyarov said in an official communique.
Then, Russia’s outgoing envoy to China Andrey Denisov told reporters on September 7 that Xi and Russian President Vladimir Putin will meet on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit in Samarkand in Uzbekistan next week.
In August, Indonesian President Joko Widodo also announced Xi will attend the G20 summit in Bali in November.
Li Zhanshu, the third-ranking politician in the CPC hierarchy, is touring four countries since September 7: Li’s foreign tour, with his first stop in Russia, is the first for a top Chinese leader since Xi visited Myanmar in January 2020.
Does Li’s ongoing foreign tour and Xi’s impending one mean China will open up in the weeks and months after the congress and allow thousands of foreigners to go back to their home countries – for many, the first time since 2019 – for a visit and allow them to return to China to resume work and life as normally as it were in pre-pandemic times?
There’s conjecture that Xi and his team will be more flexible about the policy after the 20th CPC congress in October where he is widely expected to break precedent and claim, at least, a third term in power.
Since March 2020, China has all but shut its borders, allowing only a handful of international flights to land in selected cities, subjecting all arrivals from abroad to strict testing and quarantine measures and shielding Beijing from most of these routes.
The number of operational international flights at present is few compared to the pre-pandemic time; For one, there are no direct flights between India and China since March 2020. (The virus might not be the only reason for that though.)
Most Chinese citizens can only go abroad to study or for business; both incoming and outgoing tourism numbers are zero.
A few tweaks aside, the rules and protocols continue to be in place, while the rest of the world has moved on from most Covid-19-related containment measures, normalising international level.
Internally, China’s zero-Covid policy is aimed at preventing community transmission of the coronavirus and mass hospitalisations: The strategy comprises strict, snap lockdowns, mass testing and contact tracing. Just a handful of cases could mean the locking down of entire neighbourhoods.
For the outside world, the policy means strict border controls.
“The Chinese leadership has tweaked the lockdown policy, but only on the margin, such as earlier and narrower lockdowns combined with more targeted mass testing. Local authorities in China have continued to impose strict mobility restrictions during outbreaks. The social and economic costs of maintaining zero-Covid are mounting, deepening a general sense of uncertainty in the economy, hurting consumption and investment,” Tianlei Huang from the Peterson Institute for International Economics wrote in August.
China has so far sent mixed signals about if, how or when the policy will change.
For example, Beijing has cut the quarantine period for incoming travellers – the few who are coming in or returning – to a total of 10 days, and begun to allow batches of international students from countries like Pakistan to return.
There’s, however, no clear indication that China will lift the policy after the congress given the fact that it’s helped the country to keep the infection and death counts low notwithstanding the heavy-handed approach and a slowing economy.
What’s not helping are the frequent Omicron-driven outbreaks, Covid-19 clusters that keep being reported from different provinces and cities.
“What is becoming increasingly concerning is that Covid hotspots are continuing to shift away from several remote regions and cities – with seemingly less economic significance to the country – to provinces that matter much more to China’s national economy,” Nomura, investment bank and brokerage, said in a recent report.
“Over the past week, a number of large cities in China with populations of more than 10 million, including Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Chengdu, Tianjin, Chongqing, Shijiazhuang, Wuhan and Shanghai, have significantly tightened their local Covid-containment policies,” the report added.
Given this backdrop, it will be a miracle – and not just Xi travelling abroad – if China withdraws its zero-Covid policies, both internally and for international travel, after the congress.
A gradual adjustment – or loosening – of the policy could be expected while its contours remain in place, ready to snap shut around any, even a small, outbreak.
Senior officials have recently spoken out in favour of its “zero-Covid” policy, clearly indicating that the Chinese government thinks its benefits outweigh the costs despite the economic impact or people’s frustrations.
Recalibrate, and not rescind, will be a better choice for purposes of speculation on when China will finally open up.
Sutirtho Patranobis, HT’s experienced China hand, writes a weekly column from Beijing, exclusively for HT Premium readers. He was previously posted in Colombo, Sri Lanka, where he covered the final phase of the civil war and its aftermath, and was based in Delhi for several years before that
The views expressed are erpsonal