China’s self-isolation is a global concern

The most important guest of COP26 did not show up. As President of China, Xi Jinping leads a country that emits more carbon dioxide than the United States and the EU combined. But, unlike other world leaders, Xi did not deliver a speech at the climate summit. Instead, he submitted a written statement of less than 500 words for the conference website.

Xi’s dismissive attitude towards the climate talks was not so much the Middle Kingdom as the middle finger. But the Chinese leader’s refusal to travel to Glasgow for COP26 – or the G20 summit in Rome, before him – is part of a wider pattern of national self-isolation.

In response to the Covid-19 pandemic, China has implemented one of the strictest border control and quarantine systems in the world. Foreigners or Chinese citizens entering the country must be under strict quarantine for at least two weeks. Additional checks apply if entering Beijing, where management resides.

This system has in fact made it impossible for foreigners to travel to China without staying there for several months, or for most Chinese to travel abroad. Xi himself has not left China for almost two years. The last time he saw a foreign leader in person was during a meeting with Pakistan’s president in Beijing in March 2020. Xi’s upcoming summit with President Joe Biden will be held via video.

When much of the globe was in lockdown, the extreme nature of China’s measures seemed less noticeable. But as most of the world returns to something close to normal, China’s self-isolation is increasingly abnormal.

The effects on international trade are already apparent. China continues to trade and invest with the outside world. But trade relations are fraying. Foreign chambers of commerce in China report that international executives are leaving the country and not being replaced. Hong Kong’s role as a global business center has taken a hit.

Chinese leaders might actually welcome some of these developments. Yu Jie, a member of Chatham House in London, says the pandemic has enabled Xi to accelerate down a path he was already heading – towards national autonomy. This policy began long before the pandemic, with the “Made in China 2025” campaign, which promoted domestic technology and production.

But with Covid-19, the focus on economic self-sufficiency has become a much broader inward shift – with dangerous implications for China and the world. China’s extraordinary rise over the past 40 years was sparked by Deng Xiaoping’s embrace of “reform and opening up” in the 1980s. Deng saw that the Cultural Revolution’s isolation of Mao Zedong had led to poverty and backwardness. He was humble enough to realize that China could learn from the outside world.

The current mood in China is very different. Rana Mitter, professor of Chinese history at Oxford, points out the danger that “closed borders lead to closed minds”. After 40 years of rapid growth, China is confident.

Chinese media portray the West, and the United States in particular, as in inexorable decline. The Chinese government believes that the country is well ahead of some key technologies of the future, such as green technologies and artificial intelligence. Beijing may believe that the world now needs China more than China needs the world.

Control of the pandemic is also closely tied to the political legitimacy of Xi and the Communist Party. The official death toll in China is less than 5,000, compared to 750,000 dead in the United States. The Xi government argues that while the United States talks about human rights, the Chinese Communist Party has in fact protected its people.

But China’s zero Covid policy now risks becoming a trap. As the outside world shifts towards a life with low levels of the disease, contact with outsiders may seem even more dangerous for China, leading to a renewed emphasis on restricting interactions with the outside world.

Even relaxing internal controls in China is difficult, as the Delta variant has resulted in small outbreaks of the disease in two-thirds of Chinese provinces. The suppression of these epidemics encourages the worst control manic tendencies of the Communist Party, which uses technology to monitor citizens ever more closely. In one episode, more than 30,000 people were locked down in Disneyland Shanghai and tested, after a single case of Covid was discovered.

These kinds of draconian policies are now sparking public debate in China. But controls are unlikely to be relaxed anytime soon. This week, the Communist Party is holding a meeting that sets the stage for Xi to extend his term in power at a vital party congress in November 2022. The Chinese won’t want to take any political risks until then. After the congress, China will head into winter when the disease may increase. As a result, many experts believe that China’s zero Covid policy – and accompanying sealed borders – will last until 2023.

At this point, China will have been in voluntary isolation for more than three years. The Chinese and global economies will likely suffer, as will global cooperation.

Yet the biggest and most intangible effect may be on the Chinese people. It’s much easier to believe strangers are dangerous and decadent if you never meet them. When China finally opens up, the world could encounter a very different country.

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Letter in response to this article:

Chinese foreign students vote with their feet​ / ​By Jim Stodder, Visiting Professor of Practice, Department of Administrative Sciences, Metropolitan College, Boston University, Boston, MA, USA

Teresa H. Sadler