Loosening of China’s strict COVID rules having mixed effects on the ground


Hong Kongers call for an end to tracing, masking and vaccine passports as their government proceeds with caution

Loosening of China's strict COVID rules having mixed effects on the ground

Closed mobile nucleic acid testing booths are seen outside the Shanghai Railway Station in Shanghai, China, Thursday, Dec. 8, 2022.

Residents of Chinese cities reported varying degrees of compliance with the country’s loosened COVID-19 restrictions, with some saying it would take a long while for life to return to any semblance of normal.

The government announced on Wednesday it would allow the majority of cases and contacts to quarantine at home and ordered an end to restrictions on the free flow of people and traffic in all but “high-risk” areas, saying the Omicron variant had gotten milder, and the country had gotten better at fighting the disease.

Analysts said the move was a bid to stave off further anti-lockdown protests and reboot the country’s flagging economy. 

A retired lecturer from the southwestern city of Chengdu, who gave only the surname Wang, said that until a day ago, the campus and residential courtyards of his former campus, Sichuan University, had been full of white-suited COVID-19 officials.

“By [Wednesday] afternoon, the whole lot had disappeared, like fallen leaves blown away by an autumn gale,” he said. “All of a sudden, they were gone, every single one of them.”

“It seems that resistance from lower down has forced the highest echelons to come out [and assert their authority],” he said.


After the easing, a resident of the western city of Lanzhou surnamed Geng said he had expected more people out on the streets of his neighborhood on Thursday morning, with more of a sense of a bustling city street.

“The health checkpoint at the expressway exit and the COVID-19 enforcers’ tents are all gone, but the shops and banks haven’t opened up again yet,” Geng said. “People have nowhere to go when they go out.”

“I saw that several of the big supermarkets had put up notices saying they were opening again soon, but that people will have to wear N95 masks and present a green health code to get into the store,” he said.

“It’s kind of half-baked, this opening up – terribly messy,” Geng said.

A resident of Nanchang city in the eastern province of Jiangxi who gave only the surname Guo said she doesn’t think the new rules mean an end to lockdowns.

“They’re not really lifting lockdowns; they are just calling it an ‘optimization,’ and telling us we don’t need to keep testing,” she said. 

‘White Suits’ calling for wages to be paid

A video clip uploaded to social media showed a group of COVID quarantine enforcers and testing personnel protesting in Beijing’s Chaoyang district.

The video showed workers on Chaoyang’s Changfeng Street holding up a banner calling on the authorities to pay their wages.

“Changfeng neighborhood committee, give us our money, which we earned with our blood, sweat and tears!” the banner reads.

“Even the ‘White Suits’ are rebelling,” says a voice on the video clip soundtrack. “A lot of people haven’t been paid.”

A resident of the central city of Zhengzhou, who gave only the surname Jia, said many local officials and volunteers had been given a large amount of power over people’s lives, very suddenly, under the zero-COVID policy.

“Some people benefited from the pandemic,” Jia said. “They got to wear these red vests, and feel powerful, and suddenly they’re no longer allowed to stand at the gate and show off how powerful they are.”

“They must feel lost: the moment the pandemic restrictions were lifted, they all disappeared.”

Jia said local officials had likely made a tidy profit out of selling food to families unable to leave their homes under lockdown.

“All the residential communities were making mountains of steamed vegetable buns at that time,” they said.

Hong Kong scene

Authorities in Hong Kong announced the city would maintain existing regulations amid a rebound in the number of daily COVID-19 cases, which rose to more than 71,000 by Dec. 7, a 20 percent increase on the previous week.

“Having balanced the aforementioned public health risks and the need for social and economic activities, the Government consider[s] that there is no room for relaxing the social distancing measures at this juncture,” it said, adding that the current restrictions would be reviewed every 14 days.

Regular testing is required for gigs and performances, restaurant parties are limited to 23 and banquets to 240 people, and people should wear masks when not sitting down to eat or drink, it said.

Swimming pools, sports premises, fitness centers, beauty parlors and massage establishments, bathhouses, party rooms, clubs, karaoke parlors and cruise ships are open but subject to various rapid testing requirements.

Movie theaters, performance venues, museums, event premises and religious premises remain capped at 85 percent of their usual capacity, while masking remains mandatory on public transportation.

No more a city that never sleeps

Exiled former lawmaker and democracy activist Sixtus Leung said the zero-COVID policy runs counter to human rights.

“Nowhere else in the world is using red and amber codes, let alone forcing people to get vaccinated,” Leung said. “Hong Kong is following the pace set by mainland China.”

“The Hong Kong government’s measures, including the LeaveHomeSafe app, have no effect other than to kill off the catering and retail industries,” he said.

“Hong Kong used to be a 24-hour city, where you could always find bars and restaurants open at any time of the day or night,” Leung said. “Now tourists are having to get three fast food deliveries a day instead.”

Jacob Yam of the Alliance for Revitalizing the Economy and People’s Livelihood agreed.

“The original function of the LeaveHomeSafe app was to trace close contacts [of COVID-19 cases],” Yam said. “I want to know if the Hong Kong government is still tracking close contacts and isolating them based on data from this app.”

“It seems they’re not. Some people are saying the app now functions more like a vaccine passport, but there’s no evidence that vaccines prevent infection or transmission of this virus,” Yam said.

Kick starting the economy

Yam called on the authorities to drop all COVID-19-related restrictions to kickstart its export-led economy, including the tourism, commercial, retail and catering sectors.

Democratic Party district councilor Ramon Yuen said he had doubts about the effectiveness of the current measures in curbing transmission of COVID-19.

“Plenty of medical experts have said we wouldn’t be running any additional risks by relaxing vaccine passports, LeaveHomeSafe and masking requirements,” Yuen said. “Given the substantial loosening of requirements in mainland China, Hong Kong is well-positioned to follow suit.”

“The Hong Kong government is taking an all-out approach to fight the virus without being able to say what practical effect it’s having,” he said. “Measures that significantly restrict the freedom of Hong Kongers with no practical effect should be canceled.”

Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Malcolm Foster.

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