China loosens COVID rules amid scepticism over full reopening

Residents remain in dark about when they can leave compounds despite authorities flagging official end to lockdown.

Man crosses street while carrying shopping bags
Beijing’s streets got busier on Monday as two districts allowed workers to return to their offices, while Shanghai inched closer towards officially lifting a two-month lockdown as COVID-19 cases dipped across China [File: Reuters Carlos Garcia Rawlins]

China’s capital Beijing was busier on Monday as two districts allowed workers to return to their offices, while Shanghai inched closer towards officially lifting a two-month lockdown as COVID-19 cases dipped across China.

Despite the rest of the world learning to live with the virus, China has stuck to a “zero COVID” elimination policy – featuring recurring lockdowns, border closures and mass testing – that has battered the world’s second-largest economy and thrown a wrench in international supply chains and trade.

In a respite, Beijing’s Fangshan and Shunyi districts on Monday lifted work-from-home rules and resumed most public transport.

The eased restrictions came after libraries, museums, theatres and gyms were on Sunday allowed to reopen to limited numbers of people in areas with no community cases during the previous seven days.

Shanghai, the country’s commercial capital and largest city, is due to officially lift a draconian two-month lockdown from Wednesday, although residents have expressed confusion and scepticism about how far the reopening will go.

Businesses have been told they can resume operations, but most residents have not been told when they can leave their housing compounds, much of public transport remains suspended, and no private cars are allowed on the roads without prior approval.

“A lot of people are quite sceptical,” Cameron Wilson, a football writer living in Shanghai, told Al Jazeera. “They’ve had their fingers burned because they were talking about opening up like 6 weeks go and here we are. So personally, I am in ‘believe it when I see it’ mode.”

Wilson said the authorities are desperate to portray the city as going back to normal despite the heightened level of control over everyday life.

“Often the Chinese media is just full of absolute nonsense,” he said. “They have been throughout this whole thing but they’ll be tripping over themselves to say that everything is normal when it clearly isn’t at all, and even if the city opens up, even if everyone is free to come and go as they please from their compounds, life is not going to be normal here for months if not years.”

‘Unreasonable’ restrictions

Shanghai authorities on Sunday said they would lift “unreasonable” restrictions for businesses to resume operations from Wednesday.

The government has also pledged measures to support economic growth, including issuing more government bonds, tax cuts and infrastructure spending.

China’s retail sales and industrial production in April plummeted to their lowest levels since the start of the pandemic. Beijing is aiming for about 5.5 percent growth in 2022, a goal that economists widely see as unrealistic given the lack of any timetable for permanently moving past draconian restrictions such as lockdowns.

Gary Ng, a senior economist at Natixis in Hong Kong, described the easing restrictions in Beijing and Shanghai as positive, but ultimately small, steps towards normality.

“What is important, though, is whether China can keep its path of reopening. If households and corporates continue to face the uncertainties of lockdowns, consumption and investment may not rebound as in 2020,” Ng told Al Jazeera.

“With the pressure on growth and the political reality, we may need to wait until the year-end to see a drastic change in China’s zero-COVID policy, but it is also unlikely for other cities to repeat the toughness of measures in Shanghai.”

Chinese President Xi Jinping, who is seeking an unprecedented third term in power later this year, has repeatedly ruled out deviating from the “zero COVID” strategy, insisting authorities “put people and life at the forefront.”

Mainland China has reported fewer than 5,230 COVID-19 deaths, a toll that health experts believe is widely understated given that the country has reported more than 2.5 million cases.

Shanghai officials reported fewer than 100 new COVID infections for May 29, while Beijing recorded 12. China reported 184 new cases nationwide, down from 293.

Wilson said he is not sure how Shanghai will be able to recover its image and prestige after imposing such harsh restrictions on the populace.

“I don’t see how the city will be able to move on so quickly from this. We’ve seen things happen in Shanghai which you would never think would happen in a city which really likes to position itself as a major international metropolis,” he said.

“Like people being physically sealed in their buildings… pets being killed in the street, parents being separated from their kids, people being dragged out of their apartments to go to an isolation centre, entire buildings being evacuated because one person had a case, entire villages in some cases. You cannot do all these things, you cannot let all things happen and then just act as if everything is back to normal all of a sudden.”

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies