Go to Contents Go to Navigation

(EDITORIAL from Korea Times on Dec. 2)

Editorials from Korean dailies 07:09 December 02, 2022

Zero-COVID in a fix
: Beijing should shift to exit strategy -- quickly

Just over a year ago, the Chinese government was so proud of its success stamping out COVID-19 that Beijing used it for political propaganda.

That was understandable: China's death toll from the pandemic remained at a tiny 5,200 while that of the U.S. exceeded 1 million. Considering that China's population is four times larger than America's, the autocratic superpower's COVID-19 fatalities amounted to about one-thousandth of those of the world's leading liberal democracy. China attained seemingly miraculous results through numerous daily PCR tests, airtight lockdowns and border closures.

The problem was the prohibitive price Chinese people had to pay to maintain Beijing's "zero-COVID" strategy. For example, some 25 million residents of Shanghai had to stay at home for nearly two months from March because of a few hundred new virus cases. In addition, China's slowing economy will go southward due to the endless lockdowns and decoupling from the global supply network. Foreign broadcasts show even urban Chinese are in dire economic straits.

In short, Beijing's ostensibly impressive COVID-19 report card was won at the expense of Chinese people's normal lives and human rights. It is a small surprise then that the ongoing "blank sheets of paper" protests gripping major Chinese cities are proceeding in an "unprecedented" direction. Initially sparking the protest march was a fire in Xinjiang that killed about 10 people. A rumor in Chinese social media said that the blockade of the entrance under the zero-COVID policy prevented emergency workers from accessing the fire scene.

Already, some mostly young protesters are calling for Xi Jinping to step down, chanting, "We want freedom or death." Some analysts, both inside and outside China, voice concerns, with reason, that the rallies could escalate to a massive anti-government protest like the one in Tiananmen in 1989 ― if Beijing tries to put it down brutally.

China is now in a dilemma. It can neither push ahead with its zero-COVID policy nor loosen control abruptly. Because of the Chinese people's weak immunity due to tight lockdowns and low vaccination rate, any relaxation of control will lead to a surge that could push the death toll to 1.6 million. The Chinese government should have transitioned to a "living with COVID-19" strategy at least a year ago, replacing lockdowns with inoculations ― using Western, not homegrown, vaccines. It should start the transition as soon as possible.

Chinese President Xi, who began his third term in office only a month ago, faces a critical moment as the people are challenging the Chinese Communist Party for the first time in 33 years. Xi must not regard Western nations' call for guaranteeing peaceful protest as interventions in China's internal affairs. The Chinese public and most people in the rest of the world expect Beijing to seek a wise solution to the current crisis while respecting its people's human rights. Too much is at stake worldwide if something goes seriously wrong in the world's No.2 economy.

That said, the Korean government can ill afford to sit and watch what's going on in its giant neighbor, at least for three reasons.

Economically, Korea's exports to its largest trade partner dropped nearly 30 percent last month. So it is never too early for policymakers to closely monitor the protests in China and work out ways to minimize the "China risk."

Politically, President Yoon Suk-yeol must learn lessons from his Chinese counterpart, who still seems to believe in his "infallibility," shutting his ears to the voice of his people. Yoon has yet to dismiss his home minister despite mounting public calls to sack the official, taking him as responsible for the tragic crowd crash in Itaewon that took at least 158 lives about a month ago.

Epidemiologically, too, Korea is not doing well. The nation reported 57,079 new virus cases and 62 COVID-19 deaths on Thursday. Many Koreans may not know, but the U.S.' average daily confirmed cases numbered only 42,451, with 285 COVID-19 deaths on Tuesday. Considering the population gap of six times between Korea and the U.S., Korea's new virus cases are more than eight times larger than America's and the nation's number of COVID-19 deaths was 130 percent of America's.

That is a far cry from about six months ago or from the former Moon Jae-in administration. Yoon, if he thinks he is not responsible for the aggravation as he does in all other matters, must at least show an example by taking a booster shot to raise Korea's dismally low vaccination rate.

Send Feedback
How can we improve?
Thanks for your feedback!