How is it not safe in China

Sieren's China: Play it safe when in doubt

Now Japan has also declared a coronavirus-related emergency over some parts of the country. It should be valid for one month. But that sounds worse than it is. "We are not in a situation where we are seeing rapid nationwide expansion," said Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. The number of infections in the country is still comparatively low with around 4,000 cases and 92 deaths. Japan has 126 million inhabitants, and the Tokyo metropolitan area is one of the most densely populated in the world.

"It's not a lockdown like in other parts of the world," adds Abe, "just a precaution." Local public transport continues. Shops are rarely closed. Unless the owners have chosen to do so voluntarily. For the government, the measure is above all an appeal to self-regulation. Citizens can neither be punished for disregard, nor are companies forced to close.

Great understanding of limitations

Like South Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong, the island of Taiwan and, to a lesser extent, mainland China, Japan had taken the epidemic very seriously from the start. Serious enough to prevent a major outbreak but not serious enough to get rid of the virus altogether. In Tokyo, there has been an increased number of new infections in the past twelve days. The Japanese wear respirators with every attack of cold anyway. And unlike in the West, 80 percent of the Japanese recently voted for greater restrictions on public life in a survey by the television station TBS. Now the tests are to be restarted and an economic stimulus package of around 919 billion euros is intended to dampen the consequences for the third largest economy in the world - the largest that has ever existed here.

Unbroken buying mood on March 21st

Singapore and Hong Kong are also currently seeing a slight increase in infections again. They too are tightening their security measures. In both city-states, however, the situation is also manageable. Singapore, with a population of five and a half million, reported around 1,375 cases and a total of six fatalities on Tuesday, while Hong Kong recorded 934 infections with four deaths. Almost all new infections were brought in by returnees from Europe or the USA. So what is currently happening in Southeast Asia is not a second wave, as some in the West fear, but rather an aftershock. And the new measures follow the motto: "Better Safe than Sorry".

Lots of precautionary measures

This can currently also be observed in China. On Tuesday, the country where the pandemic originated did not report a new death for the first time since January, but also reported 32 imported infections from abroad. The Chinese, too, are still cautious, despite a return to normality that is noticeable everywhere. The borders are still largely closed. Even foreigners who live permanently in China are no longer allowed to enter the country. All Chinese returnees have to take a corona test and quarantine, regardless of whether they have symptoms or not. In addition, apps certify whether you are a virus risk candidate or not. Without a flawless digital "health code" you can hardly get in or out of China at the moment.

The regained freedom to travel domestically means exercising patience at the Wuhan train station

In the meantime, each Chinese province is balancing out how quickly it can open up or not yet. Sometimes people row back. For example, some of the country's 70,000 cinemas were allowed to reopen in the middle of the month, only to be closed again a week later. Concert halls, karaoke bars and tourist attractions such as Shanghai's famous Pearl Tower experienced a similar experience. The fear of asymptomatic transmissions is just too great. The uncertainty as to when you will really be over the hill, of course, also has an impact on the economy. 90 percent of the shopping malls and supermarkets as well as 80 percent of the restaurants are open again.

Bankruptcy wave not likely

Nevertheless, business is only getting off to a slow start in many places. The sales of large shopping malls are so far only between 30 and 70 percent of the previous year's level. One is still cautious. Unemployment rose from January to February from 5.3 to 6.2 percent. However, a large wave of bankruptcies is unlikely. 85 percent of small and medium-sized businesses in China have savings for another three months. Private households also have much more reserves than we know from the West.

DW columnist Frank Sieren

On average, the Chinese put 34 percent of their disposable income on the high edge. In the US it is only 7.9 percent. Beijing has also introduced credit and tax breaks and local governments are now handing out vouchers to stimulate consumption and tourism again. That works, but of course not overnight. The most visible signal of hope this week was the opening of the metropolis of Wuhan, which was sealed off for two and a half months and, as the epicenter in China, was at times synonymous with the entire virus crisis.

After all, consumer sentiment in China is currently more positive than in most other countries hit hard by the virus. According to a survey by the management consultancy McKinsey, 49 percent of the Chinese believe that the economy will recover over the next two to three months and will grow at least as strongly as before. In the USA it was 39 percent, in Italy just 13 percent. Only six percent of the Chinese fear long-term negative economic consequences from the virus. In the USA 16 percent were of this opinion, in Spain even 36 percent.

One thing is clear: You can only be optimistic if you really feel safe. Countries like China or Japan have come through the crisis well so far because they have been cautious and will continue to do so. This also sends an important message to Germany and Europe: Better to pull yourself together for a few days longer than having to regret it later.

Our columnist Frank Sieren has lived in Beijing for over 25 years.