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Trapped in his bubble, Xi hasn’t left China since the beginning of the pandemic

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Singapore: The last time China’s President Xi Jinping travelled overseas, Donald Trump had yet to face his impeachment trial, bushfires were still burning down the east coast of Australia and the Wuhan City government was hosting a banquet for 40,000 families.

It was January 18, 2020. Xi had flown to Myanmar to meet with now-deposed President U Win Myint. More than 60 cases of COVID-19 had been confirmed that day in Wuhan, but the coronavirus was not yet on the agenda. In Naypyidaw, Xi wanted to talk to Myint about speeding up “the alignment of the Belt and Road Initiative and Myanmar’s development strategies”.

Chinese President Xi Jinping in Wuhan in March, 2020.Credit:AP

The virus that would go on to kill 4.8 million worldwide was not mentioned in the readout from the meeting. Within five days Xi would return home to seal off the city of Wuhan. It was the first sign of the brutal and effective methods China would use to deal with a pandemic, an approach that remains to this day.

Xi has not been overseas while his borders have remained closed, preferring to beam into global meetings. He gives speeches calling for unity and railing against Western exceptionalism – the mysterious aura of Xi’s image floating on a big screen over the UN General Assembly or UN climate negotiations as he outlines his alternative vision for the world. Then he checks out. There are no other world leaders there to question him.

Of all the G20 leaders, Xi is the only one not to have travelled overseas since the beginning of the pandemic. The group will meet in Rome on October 30 and again at the Glasgow climate summit over the following week. Xi will once again be absent.

The Chinese leader is isolated from world leaders just as his country is from the world. Having crushed the virus in the place where it was first detected, the land of COVID-zero is now the last one standing. Wuhan was shut off for 10 weeks. China has been cut off from the rest of the world for more than 560 days and counting. China’s fellow COVID-zero journeymen for much of the pandemic – Australia, New Zealand and Singapore – have now accepted they must live with the virus and are planning on gradually opening up their borders.

Chinese President Xi Jinping is seen on a video screen at the UN in September. Credit:AP

“It is the terrible combination of high attack rates and shortened incubation that makes Delta a game-changer,” said Catherine Bennett, the chair of epidemiology at Deakin University. “We are now drawn into the more compelling global experiment to find a workable, ethical and economically sustainable approach to controlling disease incidence and hospitalisations.”

China is still not yet ready to listen to its top infectious disease expert Zhang Wenhong. In August, Zhang suggested China needed to live with the virus and was then suddenly investigated for plagiarism by his employer, Fudan University. Instead, it is building a $350 million 5000-room quarantine centre for international arrivals, complete with three meals a day delivered by robots. The Beijing Winter Olympics, its showpiece international event in February, will take place in a bubble. Those wanting to leave will have to spend 21 days in quarantine.

Seen through a door peephole, a medical worker wearing a protective clothing disinfects the corridor of a hotel used for foreigners to stay during a period of health quarantine in Shanghai in August. Credit:AP

Chinese businesses that don’t have the luxury of Zooming into global affairs are getting frustrated as the rest of the world moves on with rising vaccine coverage.

Jin Ri, the owner of a South Korean food importer in China’s Hebei province said the restrictions had resulted in “in a great loss” to his business.

“Of course, I welcome pandemic control and prevention measures and will strictly follow them. But as more and more Chinese people have better awareness of prevention, I think it’s time to moderately loosen some controls,” he said.

“I also need to travel to South Korea to do some market research. The travel restriction measures hugely raise the cost of travel both economically and emotionally.”

Hong Kong, the international business centre, has tied its COVID fortunes to the mainland despite coming under pressure from Singapore as a rival financial hub. The city’s chief executive Carrie Lam said that has made an elimination strategy essential if it is going to start cross border travel with China. Driven by vaccine hesitancy among seniors, Hong Kong is also still grappling with stubbornly low vaccination rates of under 60 per cent, compared to the 70 per cent vaccinated in the mainland, many of whom are now preparing to get their third booster shot of Sinovac or Sinopharm.

Danny Lau, the honorary chairman of the Hong Kong Small to Medium Enterprises Association on Tuesday said he welcomed a model based on Singapore – which has slowly eased travel restrictions – because business recognised it was very difficult to erase COVID. The American Chamber of Commerce said attempting to talk to the government about alternative approaches was “like we’re talking to a wall” as its members complain about burden of 21-day hotel quarantines.

The city’s top epidemiologists are also struggling to find reasons to support the strategy in the long term.

Travellers to Hong Kong must undergo 21 days of quarantine. Credit:Bloomberg

“China and Hong Kong are going to be the two remaining bastions for COVID-zero right now,” said Ben Cowling, the head of epidemiology at Hong Kong University.

“I am a public health expert. I feel like I have to support a COVID-zero policy in terms of the public health aspect. But what I also recognise is that public health depends a lot on economics and on a lot of other factors, and it’s not necessarily true that we’d have the best health outcomes in the next five years if we remain in COVID-zero.”

The residents of China and Hong Kong still face at least another six-month wait before they rejoin the rest of the world.

“The earliest that this might happen is after the Winter Olympics in February,” said Cowling. “I think they want to show off how wonderful it is in China, with no COVID and how fantastically they’ve done to keep the virus under control.”

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