The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion China’s ‘zero covid’ policy has been a nightmare for U.S. diplomats

A coronavirus-testing booth in Shanghai on July 9. (Qilai Shen/Bloomberg)

In its zealous effort to contain the coronavirus, the Chinese government has trampled on the rights of U.S. diplomats to an extent previously unknown, compelling the State Department to take drastic measures to protect them. Beijing’s heavy-handed pandemic practices have forced the United States’ representatives there to live in constant fear.

Plenty has been written about China’s draconian “zero covid” policy, which is marked by harsh, rolling lockdowns in Chinese cities and the forced quarantine of thousands of Chinese citizens in makeshift medical facilities known as “fever clinics.” In these facilities, which can resemble prisons, anonymous authorities determine whether and when patients can leave. U.S. diplomats and their family members living in China are supposed to be immune from being arbitrarily detained. But until recently, that was simply not the case.

For the past two years, U.S. diplomatic personnel in China have been forced to confront the risk of being detained or separated from their family members for either testing positive for the coronavirus or being deemed a “close contact” of someone who has. In fact, 16 U.S. diplomatic personnel or their family members have been sent, against their will, to Chinese government medical quarantine centers since the pandemic began, the U.S. Embassy in Beijing confirmed to me.

The State Department concluded this was a clear violation of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations. Since he arrived in Beijing in late March, U.S. Ambassador to China Nicholas Burns has been working nonstop to fix this ongoing problem, making significant progress.

“What has dominated my first few months at post is the essential mission of any American embassy since the 1780s, to take care of American citizens,” Burns told me in an interview. “We have legal rights here, and reclaiming those legal rights under the Vienna Convention was very important to us. And so, we’ve held the line.”

The Chinese government boasts about its handling of the pandemic, claiming suspiciously low numbers of deaths and infections since the virus emerged in Wuhan in late 2019. But whatever success the authorities have achieved in containing the spread has come at a steep cost for Chinese citizens, who have no right to object when the government orders them into quarantine centers.

What’s known about these secretive facilities inside China is troubling. Entire residential communities can be isolated because of one positive case. Once there, people are often packed into dormitories with zero privacy, for weeks, and can be separated from their children. Once inside these facilities, patients have no rights to appeal their detention or resist invasive testing procedures, including anal swabs.

U.S. diplomats in China were so afraid that they petitioned the State Department earlier this year to allow them to leave the country if the U.S. government couldn’t protect Americans from forced covid-related detention. After several meetings with senior Chinese foreign ministry officials, Burns secured a promise that U.S. diplomats and their family members would not be forced into fever clinics, but rather allowed to quarantine in their homes or at the embassy.

Because of the lack of confidence that Beijing could fully implement that promise nationwide, the State Department issued formal letters in Chinese to each U.S. diplomat and family member in China. The documents can be presented to any local official who might try to force them into a medical facility or separate children from their parents. Also, an embassy team was set up to engage the Chinese foreign ministry on this issue.

In another policy change, if any U.S. diplomat in China now tests positive and the Chinese government can’t be persuaded to exempt them from going to a fever clinic, the State Department will immediately evacuate them to another country. These measures seem to be working. Since Burns arrived March 28, no American diplomats have been forcibly quarantined, although several had to be evacuated already this year, he said.

Even while trying to protect their own families from China’s zero-covid measures, U.S. diplomats in China have been working overtime to help Americans cope with the restrictions. The State Department evacuated most of its diplomatic personnel from Shanghai during the city’s two-month lockdown this year but simultaneously stood up an 80-person consular team to help Americans leave or at least to provide them some support.

This was not the mission Burns anticipated when he got the job to represent the United States in Beijing. China’s zero-covid policy has made it excruciatingly difficult for U.S. diplomats to do the core work of diplomacy, Burns told me, which is to travel around the country and engage with regular Chinese citizens.

“It has brought me back to the realization that there are many aspects of diplomacy, from war and peace negotiations to commercial diplomacy, but the most essential is protecting people,” he said.

From Beijing’s perspective, stifling U.S. diplomacy in China might be a welcome if unexpected byproduct of its draconian health measures. But this worrying trend in China — where the government uses health concerns to exert control over everyone, including Americans — will likely outlast the current crisis.