China still has so-called draconian COVID-19 management measures in place, some of which also violate human rights, with children being separated from their parents, people being forcibly taken to quarantine centres, food shortages in some places due to the restrictions, and animals left without owners dying or being killed.
Although China has been heavily criticised for this strategy, China does not intend to abandon its zero COVID-19 plan, at least in the short term.
Lithuania's Ambassador to China, Diana Mickevičienė, who is 49 years old, has been recalled to Lithuania for consultations since the end of last year. Our country's Embassy in China is now generally working remotely from Lithuania, as the Chinese have unilaterally renamed it the Chargé d'Affaires' Office, a name which, according to D. Mickevičienė, does not exist in international practice or in our laws.
The Chinese have also withdrawn their ambassador from Lithuania. Allegedly because of the establishment of a Taiwanese representative office in Lithuania, but there are more reasons for disagreements.
Working in Lithuania, D.Mickevičienė is in constant contact with her colleagues in China, so she knows in detail the situation in the country, which is still severely constrained by the pandemic.
– We hear various reports about the restrictions that China is taking to manage the coronavirus. And what is your take on the situation in China? – lrytas.lt asked D.Mickevičienė.
– Last week, the Politburo of the Chinese Communist Party discussed the issue of measures to manage the pandemic, and President Xi Jinping gave instructions to continue the current strategy.
The President has made it clear that this pandemic policy is defined by the objectives and mission of the Communist Party.
China has successfully controlled coronavirus outbreaks for two years and regards its strategy as a success, and it has been decided that the Communist Party must strengthen its ideological work in explaining the advantages of such a policy and in preventing doubts and criticism.
The foreign community, especially the business community, expresses many such doubts. This is particularly true of the complete closure of Shanghai, which is considered to be the financial heart of China.
Compared to the rest of China, Shanghai, with a population of 25 million, is very cosmopolitan: there are a lot of foreigners there, there is a lot of investment by foreign companies there, there are a lot of manufacturing bases there, and it is normal for such a strict policy of management of the COVID to be subject to criticism.
Even the Chinese themselves have reacted with protests and clashes that are hard to imagine in China. It cannot be said that it was massive, but the people of Shanghai were very reluctant to accept a zero-tolerance policy when it was seen that the virus was no longer as deadly as it used to be and that there were other means of combating it, and that the benefits of tight restrictions are now being questioned.
Shanghai is also important for China because of its political school. Both President Xi Jinping and other party leaders came to power through Shanghai. The megalopolis is seen as a recipe for success, and the people of Shanghai as slightly more privileged. So, when the Party's decisions are questioned in Shanghai, the tone is set for the Party's entire policy.
However, last week, President Xi Jinping confirmed that the strategy for managing the pandemic will remain unchanged and that the problem is not the strategy itself but its implementation and the doubts that are creeping into people's minds. The same evening, the guidelines for further ideological work were announced.
The Communist Party Congress will be held in the autumn to decide on the future position of the Head of State, and it is predicted that President Xi Jinping will be re-elected for a third term.
All major Party events are accompanied by additional constraints: a month before the event, control measures are tightened – not just pandemic ones – so it is unlikely that there will be any easing until October, as they are very much linked to the political cycle.
Even the head of the World Health Organisation, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, has criticised pandemic management measures in China. This is also new because, until now, the WHO has taken a moderate line on China. According to the WHO chief, a zero COVID strategy is not sustainable, given the behaviour of the virus now and what is predicted for the future. However, the Chinese media ignores this statement and comments are deleted and blocked on social networks.
A couple of weeks ago, the European Chamber of Commerce did a webinar on the implications of the COVID policy and the war in Ukraine for European business in China. There, the right idea was expressed that restrictions are only part of the problem. The bigger problem is that having gained time to control the virus through such draconian measures, the Chinese are not making good use of that time, for example, for revaccination. The revaccination of susceptible groups, especially the elderly, has come to a complete halt in China.
– Formally, the vaccination rate in China is very high. Around 88% of the population is vaccinated. But the whole world says, and China does not want to accept, that the effectiveness of Chinese vaccines is questionable.
China is the only country that uses inactivated vaccines. The side effects of such a vaccine are lower, but the protection is also lower.
However, revaccination is slow because the Chinese rely on a zero COVID strategy and so do not vaccinate. It is a closed circle.
A few days ago, 31 cases of COVID were detected in a city of 10 million inhabitants, and the city was completely closed because the local authorities decided to do so. Foreign business is most adversely affected by such closures, not because the cities are now closed, but because it is not clear when this will end. Shanghai has been closed for 6 weeks. Well, okay, it will open, but there will be an outbreak, and the city will be closed again. There seems to be no hope that this will ever end.
– However, strict restrictions come at a high price because it takes a huge amount of money for China to follow its strategy. Are the Chinese leaders completely indifferent to the costs?
– The Chinese leadership certainly does calculate, but when it weighs up the costs and benefits, it takes into account not only the economic aspects but also the political aspects. China is very much connected to the world economy, both to the United Kingdom and to other countries, but nevertheless, a couple of years ago, it announced the theory of double circulation, the aim of which is to reduce China's dependence on external trade and to stimulate the internal market.
It was not as if the US stood up and said that we should seek independence from China. It is a response to the processes in China.
As far as the COVID-19 restrictions in China are concerned, Wuhan is a successful example where an outbreak has been contained in a city of almost 10 million people. We do not know everything, and we cannot trust everything, but when the whole world shut down, China was back to normal. Its economy was recovering and even growing, despite two months of decline beforehand.
Apparently, it is hoped that this could be the case now. The problem is that the strain of omicron is different and, as the head of the World Health Organisation has said, when the virus behaves as it is behaving now, such a strict containment policy is no longer effective. But the Chinese President is convinced that what worked in Uhana must work in Shanghai.
China has a very effective health code system. Every phone must have a health code that reacts in the same second to any virus-related threat: if a single case is found in your part of town, the green codes of all the residents who have had contact with the infected person instantly turn yellow, and you can't even go around the corner with the code anymore. If you buy certain anti-viral medicines at the pharmacy, the green code also changes.
This kind of tracking is good for virus control, but it is also a problem. An acquaintance of mine could not even get into a clinic with a green code because his code was registered as suspicious with the health authorities.
Foreigners working in China cannot go home for three years because it is expensive, and they will have to isolate themselves once they arrive. Families are separated through isolation because the rooms are double occupancy. A teenager aged 16 or over is put in another room and locked in for three weeks. When the whole world opens its borders, China remains closed.
For Europeans, these restrictions seem draconian, difficult to understand, and incompatible with basic human rights. When Lithuania was under strict quarantine, I kept saying that the restrictions here were not even serious. It was just a case of a little more patience, more discipline, and more self-discipline. It is just that our tolerance limits for restrictions are completely different from those in China. People there has no choice. They are simply closed.
I myself have been quarantined three times. I know very well what it is like when you are neither sick nor have had contact with someone who is sick, but you are locked up for three weeks because you have come from abroad: you are cut off from normal life, and you cannot leave your room – there is a sensor on the door of the room, a camera – and you cannot have any contact. Those three weeks are the best-case scenario if all the tests are negative.
On one of those three occasions, as an ambassador, I had the privilege of being quarantined at home. But only one other person gets such exemptions. Otherwise, newcomers have to stay in a hotel, which they pay for themselves.
– However, there is another side to the restrictions, which is increasingly being talked about in the world, where extremely strict restrictions result in human rights violations, where people who are confined to their homes are forced to starve, for example, in Shanghai, because of food shortages.
– There has been a lot of information about food shortages in Shanghai, but no one I know in Shanghai now has this problem. However, there were some who were frightened and started to save food. Some non-Lithuanian acquaintances said they only eat twice a day because they don't know what will happen next.
Food shortages are being addressed one way or another. But nobody knows how long it will last? You can sit locked up in your house for a week, but when you are locked up for six weeks, when you run out of all the things that I am used to, such as coffee – a small pleasure – the lack of which is not a violation of human rights, but the lack of which raises questions about how much longer it will be necessary and why it is obligatory to live like this at all? After all, other countries in the world have solved this problem.
The issue of separating children from their parents is generally incomprehensible to me because children's rights are also regulated by international conventions, which clearly state that minors cannot be separated from adults. But I have heard of such cases myself. For example, at the end of 2020, a five-year-old child from the Netherlands or Belgium was taken away from his parents and taken to a Chinese hospital where no one spoke his language. In a strange environment, the child was only able to communicate remotely with his mother for half an hour a day.
I am horrified by such cases. The European embassies with which we coordinate have repeatedly made official appeals to China to exempt our citizens from such rules because they violate international conventions. This has not been heard.
We have heard that there were foreigners in Shanghai today who were subject to less stringent measures than the Chinese because the local committees overseeing the regulation of the pandemic have extensive powers and can decide on exemptions themselves. But then the Chinese themselves got upset because they believed that a person with coronavirus who had not been quarantined was a danger to the whole house. It is only because of the privileges of such a person that COVID continues to spread.
– Are Lithuanian business people in a lot of trouble because of the pandemic policy in China and the cooling of bilateral relations?
– We hear that the restrictions in China will have an impact on our shop shelves after a while – they will be empty, and prices will rise. When Chinese cities of millions of people with only a few dozen cases of COVID are completely shut down, production and logistics come to a halt. After all, all those cities have manufacturing and logistics centres.
But embassies are powerless to help. I spoke to the Germans, and they said that closure is closure – they can wave all they want, but it will not help. So, in another month, the consequences of these closures will be upon us.
On the other hand, the Chinese are trying to make sure that there is no shortage of external trade so that even if a city is closed, logistics are not completely shut down. For example, the port of Shanghai is open to a limited extent, but it is open. The bigger problem is the connectivity between mainland Chinese provinces.
– All staff at the Lithuanian Embassy in China were recalled for consultations at the end of last year and are now working remotely. How is that work going, and is there any prospect of ever returning to work in China?
– China has unilaterally renamed our Embassy the Office of the Chargé d'Affaires, a name that does not exist in international practice or in our legal framework. It is simply not done unilaterally. The Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations is clear: these things must be mutually agreed. China has violated this convention.
After changing the name of the Embassy, which we cannot accept, China has taken steps to ensure that the Embassy as a legal entity does not exist at all: customs has refused to process our shipments, and all institutions have been informed that we simply no longer exist as a legal entity. The very next day, after the unilateral change of the Embassy's name, the navigation in Beijing took us to the Office of the Chargé d'Affaires. The unilateral decision was implemented with lightning speed.
In addition, our diplomatic accreditation cards were cancelled because the Embassy no longer existed, and we had to re-register. If we were to do that, then we would accept that name change.
Those cards are our visas. So people who were given a week to re-register would have become illegal, so they came to Vilnius until we sorted out those problems. Unfortunately, we are still solving them.
We cannot perform many functions remotely. The Lithuanian Embassy in China also took care of our nationals in Vietnam and Thailand. But China has been closed for three years now, so people from those countries have not been able to come to us.
Now Lithuanians in China cannot get passports or consular certificates. Families have children, but they cannot get documents for them. They will inevitably have to go back to Lithuania for these documents. But that is also a big problem.
At one time, we were all suffering in the world, but now China seems to be the only one whose people have been unable to travel for three years. Leaving is half the problem, but coming back is a huge problem. To the beastly ticket prices must be added the cost of at least three weeks of compulsory quarantine on return.
Flights are also a big problem. Some big foreign companies try to organise charter flights for their nationals, but these can be cancelled at any time: you have a ticket for tomorrow's flight, but suddenly your flight is cancelled without explanation.
Dramatic constraints also apply to airlines. For example, if an airline flies more than five infected passengers, it is fined: the next two flights are cancelled. And they can only fly once a week anyway.
A trip to China is like a trip to outer space. On my last entry into China, I had 11 COVID tests. And an antibody test! China is the only country that requires an antibody test, which, after the vaccination, it is not clear what is needed. In Lithuania, you often can't even get such a test quickly because nobody needs it urgently. It's a big job to plan a trip to China.
But the COVID statistics in China are worrying: dozens of new cases are being detected in one place and another. In Lithuania, these numbers make us laugh, but in China, it means that the severe restrictions are not over yet.