Come Again? Will China reopen for the Olympics.

Could the Beijing Winter Olympics be the starting gun for China's reopening?
Could the Beijing Winter Olympics be the starting gun for China's reopening?

China must reopen its borders in time for the Beijing Winter Olympics in February, a top Chinese scientist has said.

“China cannot isolate itself from the world when it hosts the Winter Olympics,” Zeng Guang, a former chief epidemiologist with the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, told the Chinese news portal NetEase Technology last Monday, the South China Morning Post reports. 

Zhang’s comments seem to suggest a growing feeling in the country’s scientific community that living with the virus is something that even China will have to accept.

According to a report this month in the Global Times, Zhang Wenhong, head of infectious diseases at Huashan hospital in Shanghai, said in a Weibo social media post that the challenge was to “have the wisdom to live with the virus in the long term”.

Meanwhile, Shi Zhengli, a Chinese virologist known as “bat woman” after identifying dozens of SARS-like viruses in bat caves, told Chinese media that “we need to let go of the panic and be prepared to live with the coronavirus for a while.”

What “living with the virus” could mean in practice is difficult to judge. Almost certainly it will not be the same as the US or the UK, where most day-to-day restrictions have been lifted and some outbound travel has resumed. While this has led to sharp rises in cases, high vaccination rates have so far been effective in preventing hospitalisations and deaths.

Since the outbreak was contained in China in spring 2020 the country has maintained a largely successful zero-Covid policy. As a result, for most citizens life has returned to something like normal. However lengthy quarantine and strict testing protocols for international arrivals remain in place, which has ended outbound travel and devastated the region’s travel and tourism industries.

The recent comments could signal a change.

Around 1.7 bn vaccine doses have so far been administered in China. A best-case scenario could see more than 80% of its population double jabbed by the end of the year. Moreover, as the cost of sealing its borders begins to be outweigh lost opportunities the pressure is growing for Beijing to find a way to begin reopening.

Other hopeful sports news suggests movement. Last week the Global Times reported that the 2021 World Wheelchair Curling Championship could go ahead in October to help test Covid-19 countermeasures. This would be the first international sporting event to take place in China for almost 18 months.

It’s a small first step, but could mean that if China’s reopening is to happen sooner rather than later, the Winter Olympics will be the starting pistol.

To learn more about China’s travel industry see our Insight article, Chinese Outbound Tourism: What comes after Covid?

John Millichap

Co-founder & creative director, Signal8 Digital Marketing
john@signal8.co