China moves aggressively on Covid as political summit looms

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BEIJING: China is enforcing lockdown restrictions in areas around Beijing more intensively, and will mass test the nearby port city of Tianjin, stepping up its quest to wipe out Covid-19 ahead of a key meeting of the Communist Party’s top leaders.
The moves come even as the national case load is being contained at a high cost to the Chinese economy, with 1,556 new infections reported for Sunday in the community. Despite the impact, the country remains focused on eliminating transmission of a virus that most of the world has now accepted as endemic.
Shijiazhuang, the capital of Hebei province bordering Beijing, confined residents of four major downtown districts to their homes for three days from Sunday afternoon, saying a mass testing exercise will be undertaken. The city of some 11 million also suspended subway services and halted non-essential business operations in the locked-down districts. The province, home to many workers who commute to the Chinese capital, reported 45 Covid cases for Sunday.
The partial lockdown of Shijiazhuang follows the imposition of restrictions elsewhere in Hebei last week. Zhuozhou city bordering Beijing has been in lockdown since Tuesday, while Xianghe county issued a stay-at-home order for its 384,000 residents from Friday after finding just one unconfirmed case, going beyond the guidelines stipulated in China’s recently reviewed Covid playbook.
Hebei’s response suggests a higher level of sensitivity around the capital, as Beijing prepares to host the party congress, a once-in-five-years meeting where President Xi Jinping is due to secure a precedent-breaking third term in office. Xi has made China’s Covid Zero policy a key tenet of his rule, saying it’s avoided the massive death tolls of places like the US, despite the disruption caused.
Concern about the restrictions in Shijiazhuang are growing on social media, where several users posted information saying the city will use patrol officers and drones to ensure people are abiding by the stay-at-home orders and detain those who aren’t.
An outbreak in Tianjin, some 30 minutes by high-speed train from Beijing, saw authorities order a city-wide mass test, according to state television. The port hub had reported 31 local Covid cases for Sunday. The capital itself reported one infection.
China is holding fast to Covid Zero, even as more infectious variants require increasingly stringent restrictions that are upending growth and business activity. Lockdowns and other curbs are hitting the world’s second-largest economy, with economists downgrading their growth estimates for 2022 to 3.5% because of the Covid and property market turmoil. Profits at industrial firms in China fell in the first seven months of the year, data on Saturday showed.
Still, Xi and senior leaders appear wedded to the strategy, which involves locking down after even a few cases to stifle spread, frequent mass testing and mandatory isolation of everyone infected and their close contacts. Border restrictions remain in place, as well, with quarantine still required on entry and strict parameters for airlines flying into the country.
The technology hub of Shenzhen also locked down some streets in two districts, asking people to stay home and companies to remain shut, after a dozen infections were found among people already in quarantine on Saturday. Another 11 local cases were detected for Sunday and two dozen metro stations were closed.
Meanwhile, Daqing city, an oil town in northeastern Heilongjiang province, announced a seven-day lockdown in some areas from late Sunday after finding 29 local infections.
Chinese state media last week defended the country’s zero-tolerance approach, saying “lying flat” against the virus would be disastrous, deploying a disparaging term for relaxed vigilance often used by Xi. The damage to economic growth stems from Covid itself, not the government’s measures to contain it, the State Council-affiliated newspaper Economic Daily said in a column on Thursday.
The US suspended 26 flights by Chinese airlines scheduled for next month amid a dispute over Beijing’s Covid policies. The move came after China limited flights by US carriers including United Airlines Holdings Inc. and Delta Air Lines Inc. China suspends flights if they bring in too many infected passengers, a stark contrast to the US, which doesn’t require Covid tests and has dismantled almost all border restrictions.



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Date: August 29, 2022