Zero-COVID: null with a difference

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In Chinese, it is called "qīng líng 清零" (lit., "clear zero").  Because the concept never made sense to me as a practical means for coping with the pandemic coronavirus called SARS-CoV-2, I wrote a post trying to understand what the Chinese authorities mean by it:  see "Dynamic zero" (5/19/22).  In that post, I discussed the problem from many different angles, including:

  1. "zero moment point" in robotics
  2. "zero-sum game" in mathematics
  3. "zero dynamics" in mathematics

If "Zero-COVID" genuinely interests / concerns you, I recommend that you spend some time on the "Dynamic zero" post.  Here I will cite only this brief passage from it:

…before it was rushed into use for the current "zero [Covid control]" policy, "qīng líng 清零" started out in literary texts as an adjective implying "lonely; lonesome; solitary; desolate".  More recently, it was employed in computing as a verb denoting "to reset; to clear the memory".  From there, it was adapted by Chinese epidemiologists in the sense of "to reduce to zero; to zero out".  That may be their goal, but it is not happening, despite their fiercest efforts at FTTIS ("Find, Test, Trace, Isolate and Support").

Not to mention mass prescription of mRNA and other medicines, plus masks.

Since tens of millions of people are still suffering from Zero-COVID measures more than two-and-a-half years after the illness broke out and these drastic measures were imposed, I feel the need all the more to attempt to comprehend exactly what "qīng líng 清零" / Zero-COVID signifies.

After talking with some of my new graduate students from China, I have come to the realization that we in the West do not really understand what the Chinese government means by the name of this policy.  We are keenly aware that many Chinese cities have labored under the dictates of this policy — Wuhan, Xi'an, Shanghai, Beijing, Chengdu, Wuhan again, Shenzhen again now — to name just a few (the people affected number in the hundreds of millions, often with quite devastating consequences)….  And we in America have suffered severely from the disastrous effects of the Zero-COVID inspired lockdowns and mandates.

Make no mistake, "Zero-COVID" is the official English translation of "qīng líng 清零".  It is employed by all the major propaganda media outlets in China:  People's Daily, China Daily, Global Times, and so forth.  However, "Zero-COVID" does not mean the same thing to English speakers as "qīng líng 清零" does to Chinese speakers, functionally, lexicographically, or by any other measure.  The Americans to whom I have spoken think that "Zero-COVID" designates a policy that aims for the eradication of SARS-CoV-2 and assumes that is a feasible, desired outcome of the injunctions that it enforces, whereas the Chinese whom I asked about "qīng líng 清零" are under no illusions that it will lead to the elimination of SARS-CoV-2.  Rather, the latter accept the reality that the "líng 零" ("zero") of "qīng líng 清零" ("clear zero") is only an unattainable, ever vanishing ideal to aim for — especially in light of the resourcefulness of the parent SARS-CoV-2 in begetting variant, transmuted offspring.

These expressions are not just empty verbiage.  They have political, economic, and social repercussions that impact the lives and wellbeing of practically everyone on the planet.

This is one example of how an official translation — for whatever reason — may be at odds with reality.  The Chinese authorities are saying one thing in Chinese and something else in English.  One wonders what their purpose in doing so is.


Selected readings


  1. Jonathan Smith said,

    September 13, 2022 @ 8:20 pm

    Merits of the policy aside (to the extent there are any), qīnglíng 清零 really needs to be translated 'to clear to zero, to restore to zero', not 'clear zero'; i.e., qīng is a verb, not an attributive (lots of parallel technical uses.) Eng. 'to zero [out]' also works…

    And líng 'zero' is IMO a separate item from the morpheme líng '~fragmentary; left aside' as in gūlínglíng 孤零零 'on one's lonesome', língqián 零錢 '[loose] change', etc…. so the early poetic combination qīng líng 清零 'clear (+) lonely' is something else entirely.

  2. Tim Rowe said,

    September 13, 2022 @ 8:20 pm

    I said from early on in the pandemic that there were two ways out: to eliminate the virus (like smallpox, for example), or make the consequences of infection comparable to diseases we live (fairly) comfortably with (such as the seasonal flu with to which many Covid-deniers erroneously compared Covid-19). We are far closer to the latter than the former (not quite there yet). As a professional risk-management consultant, it seems to me that pursuit of an ever retreating zero Covid-19 is like every pursuit of zero risk: the cost eventually comes to outweigh the benefits. We could massively reduce road fatalities if we strictly enforced a 10 mph speed limit everywhere. We could massively reduce aviation accidents if we didn't let any aircraft fly. We don't accept those solutions because the cost/benefit analysis doesn't work. The quest for zero Covid-19 goes against a basic fact of risk management: zero is hardly ever a useful aspiration.

  3. Victor Mair said,

    September 13, 2022 @ 9:27 pm

    The comments from Tim Rowe, a professional risk-management consultant, are highly pertinent. Governments should appoint such experts to their staffs, pay them well, and take what they say seriously. I especially like his last sentence: "The quest for zero Covid-19 goes against a basic fact of risk management: zero is hardly ever a useful aspiration."

  4. AntC said,

    September 14, 2022 @ 2:27 am

    a practical means for coping with the pandemic coronavirus called SARS-CoV-2

    SARS-CoV-1 did get suppressed before it reached the West. Although it did have severe effects in China and Taiwan

    In the SARS outbreak of 2003, about 9% of patients with confirmed SARS-CoV-1 infection died.[14] The mortality rate was much higher for those over 60 years old, with mortality rates approaching 50% for this subset of patients.[14][wp]

    Perhaps the Chinese authorities thought they could suppress SARS-CoV-2, having learnt from 2003? (That thought was certainly part of Taiwan's approach in the early stages — before they realised it was unworkable.)

    I can't hear "Zero-COVID" without an echo of 'Ground Zero'. And that image is in my mind when I see footage of people locked inside their apartment buildings during the recent earthquake in Chengdu.

  5. David Marjanović said,

    September 14, 2022 @ 2:35 am

    The PRC's own vaccines happen to be rather ineffective, especially against the new strains, and the PRC is unable and/or unwilling to buy huge amounts of mRNA vaccines from abroad. Lockdowns are all that's left under these conditions.

    What this really teaches us is that attempts to make a national vaccine, or do national science at all, are hopelessly wrong-headed.

  6. AntC said,

    September 14, 2022 @ 3:54 am

    "zero-sum game" in mathematics

    Somebody who could have helped explain/give the mathematical background in general would have been John Conway, inventor of the 'Game of Life' and contributor to Combinatorial Game Theory.

    He died April 2020 — of COVID. In the same terrible couple of weeks that took Ellis Marsalis (father of Wynton and Branford); and Tim Brooke-Taylor, British comedian — both also from COVID.

  7. bks said,

    September 14, 2022 @ 7:36 am

    "Epidemiologist Edward Knock and other members of the Imperial College COVID-19 response team concluded that nationwide lockdown was the only measure that consistently took R below 1 in England. And the earlier that strict measures were imposed, the better. Knock estimated that had England introduced a nationwide lockdown one week earlier in March 2020, it would have halved deaths during the first wave. A study of government responses in Asia also suggested that a ‘go hard, go fast’ approach was best."

  8. Victor Mair said,

    September 14, 2022 @ 10:28 am

    "A study of government responses in Asia also suggested that a ‘go hard, go fast’ approach was best."

    The current calamitous, chaotic state of affairs in China, which came down harder and faster than any other nation, shows that such an approach was the worst.

  9. Lameen said,

    September 14, 2022 @ 10:49 am

    : "More recently, it was employed in computing as a verb denoting "to reset; to clear the memory". From there, it was adapted by Chinese epidemiologists in the sense of "to reduce to zero; to zero out"."

    Any connection with "Great Reset" rhetoric, I wonder? Was the term coined by someone who had been reading papers reflecting this orientation, or is the match coincidental?

  10. Matt said,

    September 15, 2022 @ 5:50 pm

    “The current calamitous, chaotic state of affairs in China, which came down harder and faster than any other nation, shows that such an approach was the worst.”

    I avoided responding previously because I didn’t want to move off topic, but now you are just being disingenuous.

    The studies cited by bks refer to decisions made early in the pandemic, prior to the vaccines we now have to limit its spread (somewhat) and reduce its severity (significantly).

    It is entirely expected that a reasonable and proportionate response would change through time, and what was appropriate and most effective then may well be inappropriate now.

    Surely you are feigning ignorance of what “zero covid” could mean.

    It was a strategy that proved quite effective in New Zealand and most states of Australia through a combination of contact tracing and short sharp lockdowns, which kept most states covid free and living normal lives. Even in Victoria, where the virus got most out of hand, we wrestled it back down to zero multiple times so we could rejoin the rest of our country.

    It wasn’t a strategy that would last forever, but it wasn’t designed to. It was designed to last until vaccines became available.

    You are making a case without nuance, and without recognising that all possible outcomes in the early stage of the pandemic were bad.

    If China is “calamitous”, “chaotic” and “the worst approach” now, it would be difficult to choose any other words to describe the one million deaths suffered in the US during the height of the pandemic.

    There is no doubt that there are aspects every government could have handled better and with more compassion, and it is also clearly true that lockdowns etc. had a significant impact on the economy and mental health.

    But let’s not pretend the alternative — hospitals stretched beyond limit, the virus ripping through every workplace, deaths in every family, every social interaction a risk — would not have had significant economic and mental health impacts too.

    It is not unreasonable for individuals or governments to disagree in such circumstances about what the “least-bad” option is.

    It is unreasonable, however, to argue that anything is as black and white as you are suggesting.

    And that is true even if China’s current approach has now become disproportionate and ineffective.

  11. David C. said,

    September 15, 2022 @ 8:06 pm

    Thank you, Matt. Well said.

    I seriously doubt the English-language term "zero-COVID" was invented by Chinese state media as part of a nefarious plot to confuse the West. More likely that it was coined in the Western press to contrast countries that began to relax their border controls and ease public health restrictions, with those that didn't, and the term was picked up by the English-language arms of Chinese state media because it was so widely understood.

    There are plenty of terms that Global Times etc. wish they could export to the West (the likes of "community with a shared future for mankind"), and yet despite their best efforts, these have hardly caught on.

  12. Matt said,

    September 16, 2022 @ 2:33 am

    Thanks, David. I agree that the Chinese government did not invent the term in the Western press.

    In Australia, we referred to it as “Covid Zero” instead of “Zero Covid”, but it meant largely the same thing, and with similar nuances in meaning.

    Australia didn’t set out to achieve “Covid Zero” initially, we were just “flattening the curve” like everyone else. But with the geographic benefits of being an island, our flattening efforts approached zero, which became a worthwhile target, and proved easier to maintain in some states than others.

    Covid Zero had a range of meanings between different government officials and epidemiologists, but mostly focused on zero COMMUNITY TRANSMISSION – that is, cases that couldn’t be contact traced back to a known source (usually a leak from hotel quarantine).

    When the delta and omicron strains proved harder to contain, the language gradually morphed from zero back towards suppression and low numbers until the population was judged sufficiently vaccinated.

    It was a policy that had its time, and then we moved on. If not for a slow vaccine rollout, we probably could have avoided the final six months when the mental effort began to bite and compliance began to drop.

    We definitely didn’t get everything right, especially in applying more compassion with our border control measures, and as with everything, different people were affected in different ways and suffered to varying amounts.

    But having lived through far “harsher” lockdowns and mandates than were ever imposed in the US, I remain thankful that we approached it the way we did.

    Contrary to Victor’s assertion that those in the US “suffered severely from the disastrous effects of lockdowns and mandates”, from my vantage point, it appears the more severe suffering in the US came from the effects of having too few measures applied far too late.

    But there is no right answer, and reasonable people may well consider various alternatives, think through the full implications, and then disagree, without resorting to hyperbole.

    Sadly, while I would argue that is exactly what Tim Rowe has done with his comment above, I see little evidence in this article or subsequent comments that Victor has done the same.

  13. Ethan Glasser-Camp said,

    September 16, 2022 @ 8:54 am

    I see that Vision Zero was discussed in the "Dynamic zero" blog post so I won't belabor it here but I do want to point out that in contrast to Tim Rowe's comments, I do consider this goal a useful aspiration, at least here in New York City.

  14. Louis Xun said,

    September 16, 2022 @ 1:11 pm

    "Qing" is cleanse. Sweep clean the graves "qingming." "Ling" is bits and pieces, also zero from shape of a raindrop? Note water imagery in both characters. Chinese have warped values, prioritizing human life over the market.

  15. Madhuri Kherde said,

    September 17, 2022 @ 6:12 am

    Yes, we don't understand the Chinese government's meaning behind the term zero-covid. However, we all know that many Chinese cities are suffered from this strategy. Lockdowns had a destructive impact on us economically as well as physically.

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