It’s been nearly two years since China shut its international borders as part of its efforts to keep Covid-19 out.
China tamed the initial outbreak in Wuhan by locking down the city of more than 10 million people, confining residents to their homes for weeks and suspending public transportation.
Since then, Beijing has adopted a zero-tolerance playbook to quell resurgences of the virus. Harnessing the reach and force of the authoritarian state and its surveillance power, it has imposed snap lockdowns, tracked close contacts, placed thousands into quarantine and tested millions.
Before anywhere else in the world, China’s economy roared back to growth and life returned to something approaching normal — all within a bubble created to shield its 1.4 billion people from a raging pandemic that has wreaked havoc and claimed millions of lives across the globe.
The ruling Communist Party has seized on that success, touting it as evidence of the supposed superiority of its one-party system over Western democracies, especially the United States.
But as the pandemic drags on, local outbreaks have continued to flare up, frustrating the government’s mission to eliminate the virus within China’s borders.
And now, as much of the world starts to reopen and learn to live with Covid, China is looking increasingly isolated by comparison — and determinedly inward-facing.
This apparent inward turn is evident in the itinerary of the country’s supreme leader Xi Jinping, who hasn’t left China for almost 22 months and counting.
It is manifest in the drastic reduction in people-to-people exchanges between China and the rest of the world, as the flow of tourist, academic and business trips slows to a trickle.
But it is also reflected in parts of the country’s national psyche — a broader shift that has been years in the making since Xi took the helm of the Communist Party nearly a decade ago, yet accentuated and exacerbated by the pandemic and the politics around it.
While taking increasing pride in China’s traditional culture and growing national strength, many Chinese people are turning progressively suspicious, critical or even outright hostile toward the West — along with any ideas, values or other forms of influence associated with it.
In a sense, the closed borders have almost become a physical extension of that insular-leaning mentality taking hold in parts of China, from top leaders to swathes of the general public.
For now, Beijing’s zero-Covid policy still enjoys overwhelming public support, even as China shows no sign of reopening in the foreseeable future. But analysts question how sustainable it is for the country to remain shut off from the world — and whether there could be considerations other than public health at play.
Sealed behind China’s borders
For nearly two years, most people in China have been unable to travel overseas, due to the country’s stringent border restrictions: international flights are limited, quarantine upon reentry is harsh and lengthy, and Chinese authorities have ceased issuing or renewing passports for all but essential travel.
Foreign visitors, from tourists to students, are largely banned from China. Those few who are allowed to enter, as well as returning Chinese citizens, must undergo at least 14 days of strict centralized quarantine. And that can be extended to up to 28 days by local authorities, often followed by another lengthy period of home observation.
The Chinese government has ordered local authorities to build permanent quarantine facilities for overseas arrivals, following the example of the southern metropolis of Guangzhou, which erected a 5,000-room quarantine center spanning an area the size of 46 football fields.