China has suspended or closed the social media accounts of more than 1,000 critics of the government’s COVID-19 policies, as the country moves to roll back harsh anti-virus restrictions.
The popular Sina Weibo social media platform said it had addressed 12,854 violations, including attacks on experts, scholars and medical workers and issued temporary or permanent bans on 1,120 accounts, The Associated Press news agency reported.
The ruling Communist Party had largely relied on the medical community to justify its tough lockdowns, quarantine measures and mass testing, much of which it abruptly abandoned last month, leading to a surge in new cases that have stretched medical resources to their limits.
The company “will continue to increase the investigation and cleanup of all kinds of illegal content, and create a harmonious and friendly community environment for the majority of users”, Sina Weibo said in a statement on Thursday, as cited by the AP.
Criticism has largely focused on heavy-handed enforcement of regulations, including open-ended travel restrictions that saw people confined to their homes for weeks, sometimes sealed inside without adequate food or medical care.
There was also anger over the requirement that anyone who potentially tested positive or had been in contact with such a person be confined for observation in a field hospital, where overcrowding, poor food and hygiene were cited.
Amid the growing social and economic costs, there were rare street protests in Beijing and other cities.
As part of the latest changes, China will also no longer bring criminal charges against people accused of violating border quarantine regulations, according to a notice issued by five government departments on Saturday.
Individuals currently in custody will be released and seized assets returned, the notice said.
The adjustments “were made after comprehensively considering the harm of the behaviours to the society, and aim to adapt to the new situations of the epidemic prevention and control”, the official China Daily newspaper’s website reported.
China is facing a surge in cases and hospitalisations in big cities and could see a further spread into other areas of the country with the start of the Lunar New Year travel rush, which is expected to begin in the coming days. The public holiday, which officially runs from January 21, will be the first since 2020 without domestic travel restrictions.
While international flights are still reduced, authorities expect domestic rail and air journeys to double over the same period last year, bringing overall numbers close to those of the 2019 holiday period before the pandemic hit.
The transport ministry on Friday called on travellers to reduce trips and gatherings, particularly if they involve elderly people, pregnant women, small children and those with underlying conditions.
People using public transport are also urged to wear masks and pay special attention to their health and personal hygiene, Vice Minister Xu Chengguang told reporters at a briefing.
Nonetheless, China is forging ahead with a plan to end mandatory quarantines for people arriving from abroad on Sunday.
Beijing also plans to drop a requirement for students at city schools to have a negative COVID-19 test to enter campus when classes resume on February 13 after the holiday break. While schools will be allowed to move classes online in the event of new outbreaks, they must return to in-person instruction as soon as possible, the city education bureau said in a statement on Friday.
However, the end of mass testing, a highly limited amount of basic data such as the number of deaths, infections and severe cases, and the potential emergence of new variants have prompted governments elsewhere to institute virus testing requirements for travellers from China.
More than a dozen countries have slapped new travel regulations on travellers from China.
European Union experts this week “strongly encouraged” the bloc’s 27 member states to demand COVID tests from people on flights from China and conduct random tests on arrivals.
Several EU nations – including Germany, France, Germany, Italy and Spain – have already announced COVID test requirements on travellers coming from the Asian nation.
The United States and Japan are among the non-European countries to have brought in similar measures.
China has said the testing requirements being imposed by foreign governments are not science-based and has threatened unspecified countermeasures.
The World Health Organization has also expressed concern about the lack of data from China. Chinese health authorities publish a daily count of new cases, severe cases and deaths, but those numbers include only officially confirmed cases and use a very narrow definition of COVID-related deaths.
Authorities say that since the government ended compulsory testing and permitted people with mild symptoms to test themselves and convalesce at home, it can no longer provide a full picture of the state of the latest outbreak.
On Saturday, the National Health Commission reported 10,681 new domestic cases, bringing the country’s total number of confirmed cases to 482,057. Three deaths were also reported over the previous 24 hours, bringing the total to 5,267.
The numbers are much smaller than the estimates being released by some local governments. Zhejiang, a province on the east coast, said on Tuesday it was seeing about one million new cases a day.
Officials in Beijing have said the situation is under control, and reject accusations of a lack of preparation for reopening.