Beijing closes parks and imposes restrictions amid fresh wave of Covid cases

Beijing, China, Coronavirus, Covid-19
Residents queue up for a throat swab during mass coronavirus testing near the residential and commercial office complex in Beijing’s Chaoyang district in April

Beijing has closed city parks and imposed other restrictions as the country faces a new wave of Covid-19 cases – even as millions of people remain under lockdown in the west and south of China.

The country reported 10,729 new cases on Friday, almost all of them asymptomatic.

More than five million people are under lockdown 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 shut, with their workers 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 to 48 hours are “troublesome”, said Ying Yiyang, who works in marketing.

Numerous villages on the capital’s outskirts that are home to blue-collar workers whose labour keeps the city running are under lockdown.

Many live in dormitory communities, which taxi and ride-sharing drivers said they are avoiding so they are not put in quarantine themselves.

Lockdowns in Guangzhou and elsewhere are due to end by Sunday but authorities have repeatedly extended such restrictions without explanation.

Chinese leaders promised on Thursday to respond to public frustration over its severe “zero-Covid” strategy which has confined millions to their homes and severely disrupted the economy.

The government said on Friday it is reducing the amount of time incoming passengers will be required to undergo quarantine.

The US embassy this week renewed its advice 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 was not immediately clear when and where the rules will take effect and whether they will apply to foreigners and Chinese citizens alike.

Relaxed standards will also be applied to foreign businesspeople and athletes, in what appears to be a gradual move toward normalisation.

Airlines will no longer be threatened with a two-week suspension of flights if five or more passengers test positive, the regulations say, 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 travelling, the rules say.

Before, 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 neighbourhoods 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 centres 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 which also expanded Mr 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 which 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 travellers 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 US officials and politicians 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 motorways 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 three-year-old boy, whose compound in the north west was under quarantine, died of carbon monoxide poisoning. His father said guards 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 which maintains rigid controls over media and public demonstrations.

Speculation on when measures will be eased has centred 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 Mr 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 hospital admissions and deaths than when the pandemic was at its height.