Covid-19 outbreak in Beijing prompts order for nearly citywide testing


Families in Beijing rushed to stock up on food. Supermarkets stayed open late. Residents endured long lines for mandatory testing. China’s stock markets plunged.

A fresh coronavirus outbreak in China’s capital has raised concerns that Beijing could become, after Shanghai, the next Chinese megacity to put life on hold to contain the spread of the omicron variant.

The Beijing municipal government ordered late Monday night that almost everyone in the city would have to take three PCR tests for the coronavirus over five days. The order came after 70 coronavirus cases had been found in the city since Friday.

Nearly two-thirds of the cases have been in the affluent district of Chaoyang, which ordered late Sunday that all of its 3.5 million residents must be tested Monday, Wednesday and Friday. The municipal government then ordered late Monday night that residents of 10 other districts — almost all of the city’s residents except in a few heavily rural outskirts — would have to be tested Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.

The national government has leaned heavily on lockdowns despite their high social and economic costs, in pursuit of President Xi Jinping’s “zero Covid” strategy of eliminating infections. In several cities, mass testing has sometimes been a prelude to stringent lockdowns, like the four-week one in Shanghai that has kindled widespread complaints from residents there.

The outbreak in Beijing, the seat of Communist Party power, has added significance for Xi, who had ordered that the crowded nation’s capital remain free of the virus. An extended lockdown there would add to the political and economic pressures on his government.

“Chaoyang district is now the topmost focus for pandemic prevention,” Cai Qi, the Communist Party secretary of Beijing, and a protege of Xi’s, said in instructions cited in the official Beijing Daily newspaper Sunday.

Cai appeared determined to show that Beijing would not hesitate to take steps to stifle infections, which has been a criticism levelled by some at Shanghai.

“Important pandemic measures cannot be left waiting till the next day,” Cai added. “All at-risk sites and individuals involved in these cases must be checked that day.”

Customers shop in front of a half-empty freezer for diary products at a supermarket in Beijing, China April 25, 2022. (Reuters)

The outbreak in Beijing is another blow to the already stumbling Chinese economy. Waves of selling hit the Shanghai and Shenzhen stock markets Monday, driving down by 4.9% in a single day the CSI 300 Index of large Chinese companies’ share prices.

While the entire city of Shanghai has been locked down for nearly a month, Beijing is experimenting initially with a more selective approach. A handful of neighbourhoods have been locked down, and residents of apartment complexes adjacent to these neighbourhoods have been strongly discouraged from leaving their homes.

The largest area where residents are locked down or discouraged from leaving their homes covers about a square mile of southern Chaoyang district, across a wide avenue from the Beijing University of Technology. Shops on the university’s side of the avenue were still open Monday evening, but the apparel stores, convenience stores, eateries and many other businesses on the far side of the avenue were all dark and empty.

A half-dozen police squad cars were parked with blue, white and red flashing lights at one corner of the area. Several more squad cars were parked along the road. A couple of ambulances stood ready to whisk away anybody found to be infected. But there was no easily visible sign of the high green security fences being used in Shanghai to cordon off homes and neighbourhoods.

Li Haiqing, a 27-year-old resident of a locked-down neighbourhood several miles farther east, said that he had stocked up on instant food, snacks, water and paper towels Saturday and so had been ready when he awoke Sunday to find that no one was allowed to leave the apartment complex.

“It took me by surprise. I wonder why it happened so suddenly — it feels as if it had nothing to do with me,” he said, while adding that, “Because there are confirmed cases after all, I think safety is the first priority.”

Cases have been spreading in Beijing for a week, with multiple rounds of transmission, Pang Xinghuo, deputy director of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention in Beijing, said at a news conference Sunday.

Chaoyang is the most fashionable district in the city, with numerous luxury shopping malls and expensive apartments. At Shin Kong Place, a mall with stores for brands like Chanel, Saint Laurent and Versace, long lines quickly formed at the high-priced supermarket as families rushed to stockpile food.

At a PCR testing booth on the street a block away, several dozen people were still in line at 8 p.m. Sunday when the staff members inside, in full-body white hazmat suits, announced that they were closing for the night. The closing of the booth provoked anger from the people standing in the darkness waiting for the $3.80 tests, for which the results are typically returned in 12 hours. Many shouted at the staff, and several hit and kicked the booth and tried to wrench open its door and to argue with the staff.

Chaoyang had not required residents to be tested Sunday night. But without new test results, residents are not allowed to catch a train or flight to another city before any possible lockdown is imposed. When Beijing had a small outbreak in the summer of 2020, people flocked to train stations in a rush to leave the city before they could be trapped in it.

Officials in Beijing will hope to avoid the experience of Shanghai, where a stifling lockdown this month has dragged down China’s economic outlook and stirred public anger. Residents have shared bleak stories and criticisms of the lockdown through online letters, a rap song, and a bleak video.

“We Shanghai residents feel that there have been many absurd, baffling and even cruel compulsory measures,” said Ji Xiaolong, a resident of the city, who has publicly criticized the government’s handling of the lockdown.

On Monday, the Shanghai health authorities said that the city had confirmed 19,455 cases on the previous day, a drop of 1,603 from the preceding daily count. The city has allowed residents of some areas deemed safe to step outside, but leaders have warned that the wider restrictions must stay in place until infections are wiped out.

“Shanghai is now at a crucial moment in the zero offensive,” Sun Chunlan, the Chinese vice premier overseeing the lockdown, said last week. “The pandemic won’t wait for people, and there can be no thought of putting our feet up and taking a breather.”

Residents in the Pudong district of Shanghai shared pictures over the weekend of new metal fences and cage-like barriers going up around apartment exits, part of the district’s drive to enforce “hard” isolation for locked-down buildings.

A high point of the public pushback against the city’s policies has been “Sounds of April,” a six-minute video that — against melancholy music and black-and-white overhead footage of Shanghai — replays the voices of residents begging for help from officials. The video spread fast and wide on Chinese social media last week before censors pulled it down.

It opens with Shanghai officials saying last month that a lockdown would not be necessary, and then that it would last just a few days.

Then comes a montage of voices: a truck driver carrying food for the stricken city who says his shipment risks rotting because nobody has come to receive it; a son saying that his aged and ill father was refused hospital care; a resident forced to quarantine in an unfinished hospital; a local official asking for understanding from a man whose pleas for medical attention have gone unanswered.

Some critics of Shanghai’s response are senior members of the academic establishment who usually keep their views muted.

In a submission to the government that spread on Chinese news media, Tang Xiaotian, a professor at Shanghai University of Political Science and Law, warned that officials should avoid potentially illegal measures to confine people. Residents have been angered by measures such as the barriers around apartments that could hamper escape in a fire, he noted.

Official propaganda about the lockdown in Shanghai had “hurt the credibility of the government,” Liu Xiaobing, a professor at Shanghai University of Finance and Economics, who is a member of China’s national legislature, wrote in an essay shared on Chinese social media. It was also later removed.

He did not respond to an email seeking comment.

“The policy enforcers only worry about the trouble they could bring on themselves if they relax controls,” Liu wrote. “They never worry about being called to account from the harm caused by dead-handed restrictions.”