Chinese President Xi Jinping is one of the very few – if only – state leaders in the world to have avoided overseas travel in the past two years because of Covid-19.
So when Indonesian President Joko Widodo announced in mid-August that Xi and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin would attend the Group of 20 summit in Bali in November, observers were alert for signs that China would change its long-standing zero-Covid policy.
Those prospects appeared to strengthen on Monday when the government of Kazakhstan announced that Xi would travel to the central Asia country next week, bringing forward the date of Xi’s first overseas trip since the pandemic to weeks before the Communist Party’s national congress in mid-October.
No official announcement has been made but Xi is also expected to go to Uzbekistan for a Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit next week.
Li Zhanshu, the third-ranking politician in the communist hierarchy, is also travelling abroad this week, making him the first Politburo Standing Committee member to do so.
But while diplomatic activity is restarting, analysts say the prospects of any abrupt change in China’s zero-Covid policy – even after the party congress – are remote. Instead, they say, the restrictions are likely to be relaxed gradually.
For over two years, Chinese officials have been under orders to “guard against the imported cases and prevent the spread of the coronavirus at home”.
To that end, travellers entering the country must go through a period of quarantine. If they want to go to Beijing they have to first quarantine in another city and wait until their health codes turn green before they can proceed to the capital.
Most Chinese citizens can only travel abroad for study, business or family visits. Tourism in either direction is not encouraged.
Similarly, very few senior officials – apart from top diplomats Yang Jiechi and Wang Yi – have ventured abroad in the past two years. Xi has not been to another country since his Myanmar trip in January 2020, and made only a brief visit to Hong Kong in July.
The suspension of face-to-face diplomacy is stark, given China’s significance on the world stage and the complex geopolitics it must confront.
However, there have been signs of a shift in recent months.
Vice-President Wang Qishan headed a delegation to South Korea in May to attend the inauguration of President Yoon Suk-yeol, and Environment Minister Huang Runqiu visited the United States in June.
On Sunday, Chinese state media reported that Li, the chairman of the National People’s Congress, would lead a 66-strong delegation to Russia, Mongolia, Nepal and South Korea this week. It is the first trip by an NPC chairman to South Korea in seven years and the delegation will include a number of senior lawmakers.
So far Li’s trip is the only one to be reported by Chinese state media, with no official word yet on whether Xi will go abroad. There has also been no mention in Chinese mainstream and social media about whether the trip indicates China is more at ease with Covid-19.
Nevertheless, the announcements are a positive development, according to Zhang Zuofeng, a professor of epidemiology at the University of California, Los Angeles.
“This is a good sign for the very first step that China might potentially change its zero-Covid policy,” he said.
Huang Yanzhong, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations, said the resumption of diplomatic trips by Xi and other senior officials sent a signal that the Chinese leaders were more confident about travelling abroad.
“This could potentially be one of the signs that Xi himself seems to be more confident about travelling overseas. That may have something to do with the fact that he has been fully vaccinated,” he said.
But Huang said there was no other indication that China would veer from its zero-Covid policy, especially with a string of lockdowns in communities across the country ahead of the party congress.
“The snap lockdown measures are more frequently relied upon to contain the spread of the virus. So in a way, the policy has been pursued in a more frequent and heavy-handed manner,” Huang said.
While the partial lockdown of Shenzhen, a city of 12 million, has been eased in the past few days, restrictions on movement in Chengdu, home to 21 million people, have been extended to contain an outbreak of cases.
Huang said China still considered Covid-19 to be a serious disease, noting Xi messages of sympathy to US President Joe Biden in July and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida in August when they came down with the coronavirus.
“To my knowledge, no other country’s leaders did the same thing,” he said.
“The signals have not been very crystal clear in my opinion to suggest a fundamental change of the zero-Covid policy if you look at how Xi perceives Covid,” Huang said, referring to the messages sent by Xi.
While China is doubling down on PCR tests and snap lockdowns and government officials try to maintain political stability and avoid a surge of cases ahead of the party congress, the central government has cut the quarantine period for incoming travellers and begun to allow international students to return.
In late June, China halved the quarantine period for people entering the country to seven days of quarantine in designated facilities and three days of medical surveillance. It also streamlined the PCR test declaration process in late August.
Many people on the mainland are eagerly waiting to see if authorities there will follow in Hong Kong’s footsteps to cut quarantine for incoming travellers to three days. They are also watching for any easing in exit conditions now that about 80 countries have relaxed entry for tourists.
But analysts said the changes so far had been incremental.
“This sends a signal that China’s Covid policy will be gradually relaxed. However, how long such a process will take is still up in the air,” said Chen Xi, associate professor of health policy and economics at the Yale School of Public Health.
“Even though a policy window will be open for such a policy shift after the party congress, it is unlikely going to be like an abrupt change. It is more likely going to be a piecemeal step by step process.”
Politics will continue to play a large role in the future direction of China’s Covid policy even after the party congress.
“It is clear China is following a different kind of rationality and you cannot make the predictions … based on normal common political logic,” Huang said, adding the authorities would avoid any risk that may cast a shadow over Xi’s decision to keep the zero-Covid policy for so long.
There was also a big question mark over the willingness of officials to let go of controls over the population through the health code.
“The Covid restrictions provide a proof of concept … to use surveillance to have effective control over the society,” he said, adding there was a strong incentive for the authorities to retain a certain degree of control with the QR codes even if some other Covid restrictions were relaxed.
Zhang said preparations should be made for an exit strategy.
“If China changes their policy to living with Covid-19 without the measures, such as vaccination, oral medicine for treatment, improvement of hospital capacities, etc, I could predict a major increase of Covid-19 cases as well as related numbers of deaths from Covid-19.”
China has granted emergency use authorisation to Livzon Pharmaceutical Group’s Covid-19 vaccine as a booster, as well as an inhaled booster by CanSino.
Chen said the country would likely take a step-by-step approach.
“Given the systemic risks accumulated to the whole society due to zero-Covid and in the face of less threatening new variants, China will most likely cross the river by feeling the stones,” he said.
“Therefore, it is more likely, in my view, that the party congress marks the start of a major transition, rather than a discontinuity of existing policies,” Huang said.