Censors Show Zero Tolerance for WHO Criticism of China’s Zero-COVID Policy

On Tuesday, the World Health Organization (WHO) criticized China’s zero-COVID policy and called on the government to transition to another strategy for dealing with the pandemic. The move was poorly received by the Chinese government, which censored news of the WHO’s criticism on Chinese social media. As numerous Chinese cities grapple with weeks of lockdown and with Xi Jinping’s order to intensify the struggle, many are wondering how to safely return to normal life. Agence France Press described the WHO’s call for a more sustainable and rights-centered approach:

“When we talk about the zero-Covid strategy, we don’t think that it’s sustainable, considering the behaviour of the virus now and what we anticipate in the future,” WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told a press conference.

“We have discussed about this issue with Chinese experts and we indicated that the approach will not be sustainable.

“Transiting into another strategy will be very important.”

[…] “We need to balance the control measures against the impact they have on society, the impact they have on the economy, and that’s not always an easy calibration,” said WHO emergencies director Michael Ryan.

He said any measures to combat the Covid-19 pandemic should show “due respect to individual and human rights”.

Calling for “dynamic, adjustable and agile policies”, Ryan said early responses to the crisis in many countries showed that a lack of adaptability “resulted in a lot of harm”. [Source]

Just last week, the Chinese government doubled down on its strict approach. The Politburo Standing Committee warned against anyone who might “distort, doubt, or deny” China’s dynamic zero-COVID policy, and Xi Jinping told officials to “unswervingly adhere to the general policy of dynamic zero-COVID.” Given that Xi has hitched his reputation to successfully maintaining a zero-COVID strategy, the WHO’s critique was not welcomed by the government. As the Associated Press reported, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian called the WHO’s remarks “irresponsible”:

Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said at a daily briefing Wednesday, “We hope that relevant people can view China’s policy of epidemic prevention and control objectively and rationally, get more knowledge about the facts and refrain from making irresponsible remarks.”

“The Chinese government’s policy of epidemic prevention and control can stand the test of history, and our prevention and control measures are scientific and effective,” Zhao said. “China is one of the most successful countries in epidemic prevention and control in the world, which is obvious to all of the international community.”

Earlier Wednesday, deputy director of Shanghai’s Center for Disease Control Wu Huanyu reaffirmed the approach’s importance in eliminating a waning outbreak. He told reporters that while progress has been made, relaxing prevention and control measures could allow the virus to rebound.

“At the same time, now is also the most difficult and critical moment for our city to achieve zero-COVID,” Wu said at a daily briefing. [Source]

Online censors showed zero tolerance for the WHO’s criticism of the government’s zero-COVID policy. Josephine Ma from the South China Morning Post described how a Weibo post from the official UN account, along with pictures of Tedros, was promptly censored:

Censors moved quickly to scrub the comments from the Chinese internet, removing a Weibo post on the United Nations account on Wednesday morning.

After the post on the UN’s Weibo account was censored, internet users searching for the post were given a notification that the content was illegal.

Many Weibo users complained that not only were screen captures of the UN post removed, but even pictures of Tedros became a target of China’s sophisticated social media censorship apparatus.

“Even some of the Ghebreyesus pictures were censored – will this one stay?” said one Weibo user, as he posted a picture of the director general.

Another wrote: “Even the United Nations news centre [account] and Ghebreyesus were censored, it is getting worse”. [Source]

The censorship may signal a reversal of Tedros’ previous good standing in China. In 2020, after a visit to Beijing, Tedros stated that he was “very encouraged and impressed” by Xi Jinping’s commitment to controlling the outbreak, and praised Xi for his “very rare leadership.”  Lily Kuo at the Washington Post highlighted one Weibo comment reflective of the changing tide: “I thought maybe Tedros was speaking in the name of an international organization to give his majesty a way out […] Seeing all these posts get removed, now I see I was overthinking [their friendship].” CDT Chinese has collected other netizen comments about the censorship of Tedros’ statement, some of which are translated below:

天晴也带伞:In the last few months, we have bid farewell to Mr. Democracy and Mr. Science, and today we are saying goodbye to Mr. Tedros [a play on the characters in Mr. Tedros’ Chinese name].

老宇的私密:Different voices are not permitted, for the sake of this “Great Nation.”

MonsieurJulio:If we can shut down the official social media accounts of the United Nations, we’re not far from ruling the entire planet.

波尼特卡9:Has Director-General Tedros turned traitor?

hfs3hw:Now I finally understand the term “no matter what the cost.”

住在芒果街:I don’t know if we can figure our way out of this. All I know is that we regular folks are on the verge of losing our minds …

DemEnthusiast:Regardless of whether he [Mr. Tedros] has colluded with Beijing in the past, today he said something sensible. [Chinese]

Behind Chinese officials’ determination to uphold the zero-COVID policy is a fear that if pandemic controls were relaxed, the country could suffer a massive wave of deaths due to low rates of immunity, particularly among the elderly. While over 88 percent of China’s population is fully vaccinated, as of mid-April, only half of people over 80 were vaccinated, largely because the government’s initial vaccination strategy prioritized key groups most likely to spread the virus, rather than the most vulnerable. Proof of the danger lies in Hong Kong, where low vaccination rates among the elderly caused fatality rates to spike during an Omicron outbreak earlier this year. A new study in the journal Nature confirmed these fears for the mainland, finding that over 1.5 million lives could be lost if the zero-COVID policy were dropped without safeguards. However, as Oliver Barnes, Sarah Neville, and Andy Lin reported for the Financial Times, the study’s researchers questioned “whether and how long a zero-Covid policy can remain in place”:

The researchers stressed that while China’s vaccination rates were “insufficient” to prevent an Omicron surge overwhelming hospitals, access to vaccination and antiviral therapies for vulnerable groups alongside non-pharmaceutical interventions, such as testing and mask-wearing, “should be points of emphasis in future mitigation policies”.

[…] Professor Marco Ajelli, an infectious disease modeller at Indiana University’s School of Public Health who contributed to the study, said China could “chart a path away from zero-Covid” by vaccinating more elderly people and using a western-made shot instead of the less effective homegrown Sinovac and Sinopharm jabs.

[…] Ben Cowling, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Hong Kong who was not involved in the study, stressed that the projections “should not be read as [a] recommendation to continue with zero-Covid”.

“In many ways, zero-Covid was a cause rather than an effect of the low vaccine coverage in the elderly. The zero-Covid approach caused older people to be reluctant to get vaccinated because they didn’t see the need or the urgency,” he added. [Source]

Translation by Cindy Carter.


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