Beijing closed city parks and imposed other restrictions as the country faces a new wave of COVID-19 cases, even as millions of people remained under lockdown Friday in the west and south of China.
The country reported 10,729 new cases on Friday, almost all of them testing positive while showing no symptoms. More than 5 million people were under lockdown Friday in the southern manufacturing hub Guangzhou and the western megacity Chongqing.
With the bulk of Beijing’s 21 million people undergoing near daily testing, another 118 new cases were recorded in the sprawling city. Many city schools switched to online classes, hospitals restricted services and some shops and restaurants were shuttered, with their staff taken to quarantine. Videos on social media showed people in some areas protesting or fighting with police and health workers.
“It has become normal, just like eating and sleeping,” said food service worker Yang Zheng, 39. “I think what it impacts most is kids because they need to go to school.”
Demands for testing every 24-48 hours are “troublesome,” said Ying Yiyang, who works in marketing.
“My life is for sure not comparable to what it was three years ago,” said Ying. Family visits outside of Beijing can be difficult if the smartphone app that virtually all Chinese are required to display does not green-light travel back to the capital, Ying said.
“I just stay in Beijing,” Ying said.
Numerous villages on the capital’s outskirts that are home to blue-collar workers whose labor keeps the city running were under lockdown. Many live in dormitory communities, which taxi and ride-sharing drivers said they were avoiding so as not to be placed in quarantine themselves.
Lockdowns in Guangzhou and elsewhere were due to end by Sunday, but authorities have repeatedly extended such restrictions with no explanation.
Chinese leaders had promised Thursday to respond to public frustration over its severe “zero-COVID” strategy that has confined millions to their homes and severely disrupted the economy.
The government said Friday it was reducing the amount of time incoming passengers would be required to undergo quarantine. The U.S. embassy this week renewed its advisement for citizens to avoid travel to and within China unless absolutely necessary.
Incoming passengers will only be quarantined for five days, rather than the previous seven, at a designated location, followed by three days of isolation at their place of residence, according to a notice from the State Council, China’s Cabinet.
It wasn’t immediately clear when and where the rules would take effect and whether they would apply to foreigners and Chinese citizens alike.
Relaxed standards would also be applied to foreign businesspeople and athletes, in what appeared to be a gradual move toward normalization.
Airlines will no longer be threatened with a two-week-long suspension of flights if five or more passengers tested positive, the regulations said, potentially providing a major expansion of seats on such flights that have shrunk in numbers and soared in price since restrictions were imposed in 2020.
Those flying to China will only need to show a single negative test for the virus within 48 hours of traveling, the rules said. Formerly, two tests within that time period were required.
“Zero-COVID” has kept China’s infection rate relatively low but weighs on the economy and has disrupted life by shutting schools, factories and shops, or sealing neighborhoods without warning. With the new surge in cases, a growing number of areas are shutting down businesses and imposing curbs on movement. In order to enter office buildings, shopping malls and other public places, people are required to show a negative result from a virus test taken as often as once a day.
With economic growth weakening again after rebounding to 3.9% over a year earlier in the three months ending in September, forecasters had been expecting bolder steps toward reopening the country, whose borders remain largely closed.
President and ruling Communist Party leader Xi Jinping is expected to make a rare trip abroad next week, but has given little indication of backing off on a policy the party has closely associated with social stability and the avowed superiority of his policies.
That has been maintained by its seven-person Politburo Standing Committee, which was named in October at a party congress that also expanded Xi’s political dominance by appointing him to a third five-year term as leader. It is packed with his loyalists, including the former party chief of Shanghai, who enforced a draconian lockdown that sparked food shortages, shut factories and confined millions to their homes for two months or more.
People from cities with a single case in the past week are barred from visiting Beijing, while travelers from abroad are required to be quarantined in a hotel for seven to 10 days — if they are able to navigate the timely and opaque process of acquiring a visa.
Business groups say that discourages foreign executives from visiting, which has prompted companies to shift investment plans to other countries. Visits from U.S. officials and lawmakers charged with maintaining the crucial trading relations amid tensions over tariffs, Taiwan and human rights have come to a virtual standstill.
Last week, access to part of the central city of Zhengzhou, home to the world’s biggest iPhone factory, was suspended after residents tested positive for the virus. Thousands of workers jumped fences and hiked along highways to escape the factory run by Taiwan’s Foxconn Technology Group. Many said coworkers who fell ill received no help and working conditions were unsafe.
Also last week, people posted outraged comments on social media after a 3-year-old boy, whose compound in the northwest was under quarantine, died of carbon monoxide poisoning. His father complained that guards who were enforcing the closure refused to help and tried to stop him as he rushed his son to a hospital.
Despite such complaints, Chinese citizens have little say in policy making under the one-party authoritarian system that maintains rigid controls over media and public demonstrations.
Speculation on when measures will be eased has centered on whether the government is willing to import or domestically produce more effective vaccines, with the elderly population left particularly vulnerable.
That could come as soon as next spring, when a new slate of officials are due to be named under Xi’s continuing leadership. Or, restrictions could persist much longer if the government continues to reject the notion of living to learn with a relatively low level of cases that cause far fewer hospitalizations and deaths than when the pandemic was at its height.