BEIJING - Two top Chinese infectious diseases specialists have in recent days hinted that China could be moving towards easing its zero-tolerance policy towards Covid-19 as more of the population gets vaccinated.
In what appears to be a test balloon of sorts for future easing, the comments have faced relatively little pushback from the authorities and have been allowed to remain online, even as the official narrative remains for now that the muscular measures in place for almost two years are the only way to go.
In separate media interviews, Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention head George Gao and top epidemiologist Zhong Nanshan said that as the country closes in on 85 per cent vaccination rate, its strict control measures could possibly start to ease up.
"I don't think China can go on like this for a long time because this is a worldwide disease, and China and the world must work together to overcome it," Dr Zhong told the Southern People Weekly magazine last month.
He noted that as measures like long quarantine and strict lockdowns in response to outbreaks continue, even the strictest methods would not work because of the burden on the system and the people.
"It is necessary for countries, especially large countries, to have relatively low infections, a relatively high rate of vaccination (of between 80 to 85 per cent), and a lower mortality rate. Only then can (the country) be completely opened up."
China is still closed to tourists and only issues visas to selected individuals. Even then, those who enter the country must be quarantined for between 14 and 21 days, and undergo numerous Covid-19 tests.
The country also does not allow individuals to do self-tests at home, requiring swabs to be done in designated clinics in a bid to ensure positive results will not go unreported.
Meanwhile, Dr Gao told Caijing magazine that should vaccination rates in China hit 85 per cent in early 2022, there is a chance for the country to "open its doors".
Noting that it is a "highly sensitive" issue, he said there are still many who oppose vaccines, oppose opening up and even reject treating Covid-19 like the seasonal flu.
"Context is important and right now, at this point in time, China's zero-tolerance strategy has won us much time to allow us to develop and administer large amounts of vaccines, which means we could have a vaccination rate of above 85 per cent by early 2022," Dr Gao said.
By then, with most of the country vaccinated, the infected exhibiting mild symptoms and the death rate low, there is little reason not to reopen the country's borders like the rest of the world, he said.
"When (the fight with the virus) is going to be a protracted war, then surely there needs to be a long-term strategy. So if you don't try to co-exist with the virus, is there any other way?" he added.
In recent months, fatigue and complacency have set in as some are tired of the "at war" narrative while having been lulled into a false sense of security by scenes of life largely back to normal in China.
This - and a more infectious Delta variant - has resulted in slip ups in several provinces, including an outbreak that started at the international airport in Nanjing city, Jiangsu province, over the summer holidays and spread to several other provinces, and a more recent cluster in Fujian province. Both were rapidly dealt with through strict lockdowns, harsh quarantines and mass testing.
As at Friday (Oct 15), China reported 10 new Covid-19 infections, all of which were imported. It has administered 2.22 billion doses of vaccines.
The muted response to the two experts' comments was a stark contrast to the criticisms over earlier comments by another infectious diseases expert Zhang Wenhong.
In August, he was roundly criticised for "pandering to foreign ideas" after he suggested co-existing with Covid-19. He was later investigated for plagiarism in his dissertation but cleared of all charges.
Yet even as China starts to mull over easing restrictions, a calendar packed with high-profile events means Beijing will be keen to avoid any large-scale outbreak that could take the shine away from the events.
The Winter Olympics in February next year is set to be tightly controlled, with participants having to be fully vaccinated or face a 21-day quarantine, along with daily tests. A twice-in-a-decade Party Congress next November also means controls could possibly remain firmly in place for a while more.
For younger Chinese accustomed to an interconnected world, seeing other countries opening up to vaccinated travellers has been tantalisingly difficult.
"Some of my friends in South-east Asia can now go to Europe and it makes me very envious," said social media executive Rita Li, 29, who used to go on yearly summer shopping holidays.
Ms Li, who said she can travel on a business visa, has been put off by the 21-day quarantine required of her when she returns to Beijing.
"When everyone was in lockdown, it didn't feel so bad, but now that others are opening up, I feel like I'm missing out."