context: Beijing took the opportunity presented by COVID-19 to reinforce state power over individuals and at the grassroots. Mild public health measures were not an option but it continues to mobilise people to wipe out infection ‘at any cost’.

On 29 July, China’s top epidemiologist at Huashan Hospital Zhang Wenhong 张文宏 posted an article on WeChat arguing for ‘co-existence’ with the coronavirus. Public health policy should rely on science and be evidence-based, Zhang emphasised. He argued that vaccines can reduce deaths and hospitalisation rates to the level of flu; people’s caution and an effective public health system can keep infections at a controllable level, and China should figure out alternatives.

Similarly, Guan Yi 管轶 University of Hong Kong epidemiologist says border closures and internal travel bans are costly and unsustainable as the coronavirus is unlikely to disappear. China will adopt alternative approaches when the costs of ‘zero-COVID’ exceed the benefits, said CCDC (Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention) former chief epidemiologist Zeng Guang 曾光 in a recent interview.

Zhang’s mild approach to COVID controls was subsequently attacked by Zhang Yiwu 张颐武 Peking University Chinese professor and many populist netizens for being ‘backed by Western interest groups to reverse China’s success in COVID prevention’. Economist and former health minister Gao Qiang 高强 argues for “complete eradication of the coronavirus”. The Delta variant cannot be the excuse for loosening control; the ‘policy of coexistence’ adopted by the UK and US is irresponsible, says Gao. Strict control measures should remain in place as well as vaccines.