When China scrapped mandatory quarantine for foreign arrivals on January 9th this year, the last pillar propping up the government’s “zero Covid” regime came crashing down. The decision marked the final collapse not just of a policy that had defined life in China for three years, but also of the scaffolding of expert opinion that had long supported these measures.
Suddenly, leading epidemiologists who had publicly made scientific cases for adhering to lockdown measures were talking about the science of completely scrapping them, with slippery words like “optimization.” The before-and-after contrasts, laid out in posts like this one on Chinese social media, seemed to beg a fundamental question: What good are health experts if politics leads their science by the nose?
One prominent case in point has been medical expert Zhong Nanshan (钟南山), dubbed a hero during the 2003 SARS epidemic and chosen in early 2020 to lead a Covid response expert panel under China’s National Health Commission (NHC).
In March 2022, Zhong was quoted in the People’s Daily and other official sources as saying that the “harmfulness” of the Omicron variant “far exceeded that of the flu,” encouraging fear of a more relaxed approach. While the rate of deaths might be low, he suggested, the variant remained highly infectious.
The doctor’s voice was even used to allay fears about the deep economic impact of continued lockdowns. “But life comes first, and this is a price that must be borne, a price worth paying,” he was quoted by the official China News Service as saying. “Because economic losses can be regained, but the loss of human life cannot.”
The next month, as the turmoil of Shanghai’s lockdown drove a wave of public anger, the doctor was invoked repeatedly by the media to make the case for what Xi Jinping called “persistence.” A headline in the China Youth Daily newspaper read: “Zhong Nanshan: China Should Persist with Dynamic Zero, Opening Gradually.” Similar cautions appeared across commercial internet sites.
But as controls were suddenly eliminated in December, even as the government seemed to have neglected the most basic preparations, Zhong Nanshan changed his tune — and set off marching in the opposite direction.
On December 19, less than two weeks after the NHC announced a nationwide relaxation of Covid restrictions, Zhong was quoted by the official Xinhua News Agency as saying, “Now, looking correctly at the situation caused by Omicron, one cannot apply the methods of two years ago.” In a clear reversal of the government’s previous fear-mongering over the dangers of infection, he added that “Omicron infection is not scary, and 99 percent [of people] can fully recover within 7-10 days.”
This dramatic about-face in the official messaging was for many Chinese a tacit admission of how ill-considered the policies applied over the previous year had been. It also sapped public confidence in the reliability of the knowledge and advice offered by experts.
By the end of the year, Zhong Nanshan was facing what one blogger in China called “a serious crisis of credibility.” He was not alone. Experts like Liang Wannian (梁萬年), head of the Covid response expert panel under the NHC, had similarly been strong voices in support of “zero Covid,” and they too were now supporting a dramatically different policy, even as they claimed to base their points on science.
During a press conference on December 7, as the government announced sweeping changes to its policy, Liang casually noted “a decrease in the virulence and pathogenicity of the virus, which is already present in the Omicron strain.”
Contrast this with his message less than eight months earlier, on April 22, as Shanghai’s lockdown was accelerating and whole communities were forcibly relocated. At that time, Liang had been referenced in a report headlining the official nightly news program Xinwen Lianbo (新闻联播) that made the case for the leadership’s decision to “unshakably persist” in its “zero Covid” policy. That report said: “Determining the seriousness of a disease, Liang Wannian said, requires an overall calculation of its infectiousness and the serious illnesses and deaths it causes. Omicron is much more transmissible than influenza and other previous mutant strains of Covid.”
In recent months, Liang Wannian has repeatedly used the word “science” to explain away accusations that there were failures in how the government managed the loosening of Covid restrictions. On January 7, the epidemiologist, regarded as one of the architects of “zero Covid,” explained that because the virulence of the Omicron strain had been shown to be low, “I think the timing [of the policy change] was determined in a scientific way, that it was appropriate and in accordance with the relevant requirements.”
Rewind just three months to the first half of October and Liang can be found on the popular news commentary program News 1+1 on China Central Television, warning millions of viewers that “from a scientific point of view, it is also difficult to say when we can return to normal,” considering that the Omicron variant “remains a major health threat to the population.”
But behind these apparent case studies in expert flip-flopping lies a deeper story about the framing and censorship of expert knowledge by the Chinese Party-state and its massive media ecosystem. And once again, Zhong Nanshan could be a strong case in point.
One of the most revealing episodes in the saga of Chinese expert opinion on Covid came in the first week of April 2022 but was quickly eclipsed by the dramatic scenes emerging from the lockdown in Shanghai, and by a tidal wave of official propaganda in support of “zero Covid.”
On April 6, the English-language National Science Review, a journal edited by scholars from the Chinese Academy of Sciences with a full list of editors and advisory board members comprising leading Chinese experts, published an editorial called “Strategies for Reopening in the Forthcoming Covid-19 Era in China.” Co-authored by Zhong Nanshan and Guan Weijie (关伟杰), a doctor at the Guangzhou Institute of Respiratory Disease, the editorial said that China’s current Covid policies “cannot be pursued in the long run.”
“China needs to reopen so as to normalize socio-economic development and adapt to global reopening,” Zhong and Guan wrote.
The article immediately prompted speculation that changes might be underway to China’s Covid response. But the signs quickly changed. A Chinese-language version of the article had briefly circulated on social media inside China on April 4, ahead of the official publication date, but this version was quickly expunged, and replaced with an article reflecting the official view. In consideration of the generally extended period required for the peer review of academic journal contributions, some speculated that the Zhong Nanshan article had been submitted prior to the March 17, 2022, address to the Politburo Standing Committee in which Xi Jinping doubled down on “zero Covid” by reappropriating the revolutionary slogan “persistence is victory.”
China needs to reopen so as to normalize socio-economic development and adapt to global reopening.Zhong Nanshan, in an article deleted from the Chinese internet in early April 2022.
In the weeks that followed, there were further hints of criticism and resistance within China — and not just from medical experts. In a post to WeChat on April 19, 2022, Liu Xiaobing (刘小兵), a delegate to the National People’s Congress and the head of the Shanghai University of Finance and Economics (SUFE), called on the authorities to raise the “scientificity” (科学性) of the Covid response.
Among his carefully thought-out suggestions, which included more recent research on the Omicron variant, Liu focused on the national framing of the virus and the measures to deal with it as a key contributing factor, feeding an unnecessary sense of fear to support policies. “The dangers of the epidemic should be judged scientifically and objectively,” he said, “and the virus should not be demonized in national propaganda.”
While Liu Xiaobing’s post did not expressly call for an end to “zero Covid,” it was quickly deleted by internet censors, again depriving the public space of important facts and perspectives.
The flip-flopping remarks of China’s medical experts have prompted some amusing and revealing discussions on Chinese social media, but the limits of this discussion again reveal the key underlying issue. One WeChat post, “Experts Have Mutated Overnight” (一夜之间, 砖家们全变异了), which laid before-and-after examples side-by-side, was widely shared but quickly censored.
Taken together, the deletion of the Zhong Nanshan editorial, the constructive criticisms offered by Liu Xiaobing, and even a playful WeChat post folding the history of Covid-related official communication against itself, all reveal the immense barrier created by censorship and propaganda. They are a reminder of a painful lesson that played out in the earliest days of Covid in late 2019, as doctors in Wuhan were quietly disciplined for privately discussing local infection cases, and warned instead to “speak politics,” “speak discipline,” and only last to “speak science.”
However much the leadership and its experts in the official media may talk about the need for scientific approaches, it is politics that ultimately drives decision-making in China. The result is not just poor public policy but a complete loss of credibility for experts, in the eyes of an increasingly jaded and untrusting population.