President Xi’s Grand Zero-COVID Reversal: What are the Risks? 

President Xi has announced he will be opening China’s borders to travel by Chinese citizens  from Sunday 8th January,  a fortnight before the start of the 15-day celebration of the Chinese New Year which sees hundreds of millions of Chinese go on holiday inside and outside China to visit family and friends. 

Whilst this is normally a time of celebration, the number of COVID cases in China is rocketing into the hundreds of millions as well. The failure and then sudden reversal of Xi’s zero-COVID policy is a disaster for Chinese citizens. Their plight does not only deserve our fullest attention but any support we can give. 

The answer clearly is to fix the problem at home. However, Xi has turned down German Chancellor Scholz’s offer of our more effective mRNA COVID vaccines whilst not having concentrated on a comprehensive vaccination programme, even with China’s own less-potent vaccines. The cruel illogic of dictatorship is revealed once more, prestige and political survival counting more than life. 

Instead, Xi is putting at risk the health of the rest of the world, the second time COVID is being exported globally after the Chinese Communist Party initially suppressed information on COVID for a month when it appeared in Wuhan in 2019, allowing for its spread.

What should we do? Do the United Kingdom and the rest of Europe feel our citizens are protected enough with our own vaccines to open up to our Chinese visitors? Even if we could be, Xi’s folly is putting at risk those populations such as in Africa and Asia who have not been vaccinated to the same degree as in developed countries.  

The problem is that the Chinese Communist Party has once again clamped down on trustworthy information about what is going on, including to the World Health Organisation. We do not know what new COVID variants are arising. The numbers of COVID infections and deaths declared by Chinese authorities are ridiculously small. We should indeed take our decisions based on medical evidence but it is proven that this is completely unreliable coming from the Chinese authorities.  

Secondly the worldwide spread of COVID from China has already restarted. This week, 52% of passengers arriving in Milan on a plane from China tested positive for COVID. 

The UK government has had a policy of “living with COVID”. Nevertheless, a large influx of infected Chinese visitors into the UK is an unforeseen emergency and runs a high risk. Following decisions made by other countries, it has just been announced that passengers arriving from China to England from 5th January will need to show a negative COVID-19 pre-departure test taken no more than two days prior to departure. 

However, a doctor on CNN recently said all visitors coming from China should be tested immediately before boarding a plane, two days before being not enough given the speed of the spread in China. Japan has already decided to test on arrival.

We do not need more cases in the UK at a time NHS nurses, emergency services and our border force are heavily over-stretched or even on strike. The possible requirement for quarantine hotels, the return of mask wearing as well as increasing racism against people looking Chinese are the last things we need.

It should not be forgotten that this will also impact on Chinese residents in the UK going back to China to visit family and friends for the holidays and then needing to come back.

Suspicions have been raised about Xi’s other motives for opening his borders. Is he practicing hybrid warfare, “weaponising” COVID in an attempt to further destabilise the West? China’s “without limits” friendship with Russia was on display again this week when Xi declared at his videoconference with President Putin that, despite Ukraine, “in the face of a difficult and far from unambiguous international situation, we are ready to build up strategic cooperation with Russia”.  Attempts to weaken liberal democracies can take many forms.

* George Cunningham has been elected to the FIRC 2023-25. He is Chair of the FIRC Subcommittee on China, Chair of Lib Dems Abroad and a Lib Dem member of ALDE Council.