BEIJING: Businesses reopened and testing requirements were relaxed in Beijing and other Chinese cities on Monday as the country tentatively eases out of a strict zero-COVID policy that sparked nationwide protests. Local authorities across China have begun a slow rollback of the restrictions that have governed daily life for years, encouraged by the central government’s orders for a new approach to fighting the coronavirus.
In the capital Beijing, where many businesses have fully reopened, commuters from Monday were no longer required to show a negative virus test taken within 48 hours to use public transport. Financial hub Shanghai – which underwent a brutal two-month lockdown this year – extended this measure to most public places except medical institutions, schools, restaurants and bars, nursing homes and indoor entertainment venues, starting from Tuesday.
The city had already exempted parks and tourist attractions from the testing requirement a day earlier and what the latest rule change encompassed was unclear. Neighboring Hangzhou ended regular mass testing for its 10 million people, except those living in or visiting nursing homes, schools and kindergartens. The testing requirement for public transport had been scrapped on Sunday in the central city of Wuhan, where the coronavirus was first detected in late 2019, as well as in Shandong province.
And Zhengzhou – home to the world’s largest iPhone factory – on Sunday said people would be allowed to enter public places, take public transport and enter their residential compounds without a 48-hour negative test result too. But as officials have dismantled testing facilities, long queues have appeared around those that remain, forcing residents to wait in cold temperatures to get tests that remain obligatory across much of China.
“Students can’t go to school without a 24-hour negative test,” wrote a user on China’s Twitter-like Weibo. “What’s the point in closing testing booths before dropping the need to show test results completely?” another asked. In the northwestern city of Urumqi, where a fire that killed 10 people became the catalyst for the recent anti-lockdown protests, supermarkets, hotels, restaurants and ski resorts reopened on Monday. The city of more than four million in the far-western Xinjiang region endured one of China’s longest lockdowns, with some areas shut from August until November.
The demonstrations last week were the largest in decades as public anger at prolonged virus restrictions boiled over, with many university campuses involved. China’s vast security apparatus has moved swiftly to smother the rallies, deploying a heavy police presence while boosting online censorship and surveillance of the population. But sporadic localized clashes have continued to flare up.
Hundreds of students at Wuhan University in central China staged a protest Sunday evening, according to footage on social media and an attendee. At least 300 protested in front of the university’s main administrative building, but there was no violence, only students chanting slogans together, an anonymous witness told AFP. Students were unhappy with the university’s examination arrangements and school holiday dates, he said. The university announced Sunday that it would gradually resume in-person teaching and “optimize campus epidemic control measures” from Monday, but students and staff could not leave campus without approval.
Chinese state media, which previously focused on highlighting the dangers of COVID-19, has shifted tone as measures have been relaxed. Authoritative business news outlet Yicai on Sunday quoted an unnamed health expert arguing that officials should dial down strict virus rules. “Most infected people are asymptomatic… and the fatality rate is very low,” the expert said.
China’s central National Health Commission (NHC) categorizes infectious diseases based on how fatal and infectious they are. Since January 2020, it has managed COVID under Category A protocols, giving local governments the power to enforce snap lockdowns and put patients and their close contacts into quarantine. That approach was now “obviously not in line with science” given the changing circumstances, the expert told Yicai, calling for a “downgrade”. Chinese authorities on Monday reported 29,724 new domestic COVID cases. – AFP