When a handful of new cases of coronavirus materialized this month in a province around Beijing – apparently scattered at a village wedding party – the Chinese authorities took action.
They shut down two cities with more than 17 million people, Shijiazhuang and Xingtai. They ordered a collision testing regime for almost all residents there, which was completed in a few days.
They closed the transport and canceled weddings, funerals and, most importantly, a provincial conference for the Communist Party.
This week, lockdowns were expanded to include another city on the outskirts of Beijing, Langfang, as well as a county in Heilongjiang, a northeastern province. Districts in Beijing itself, the Chinese capital, are also being closed.
The flare-up remains small compared to the devastation faced by other countries, but they threaten to undermine the success of the country’s Communist Party in submitting the virus, allowing the economy to recover after last year’s decline and its people return to something close to normal life.
The urgency of the government’s current response stands in contrast to officials in Wuhan last year who feared a setback if they uncovered the mysterious new diseases that were then emerging. Local officials who had embarked on a Communist Party conference like the one now being canceled in Hebei, despite knowing the risk of the disease spreading among humans.
Since Wuhan, authorities have set up a playbook that mobilizes party cadres to respond quickly to new outbreaks by sealing neighborhoods, conducting extensive tests and quarantining large groups when necessary.
“In the process of preventing and combating infectious disease, one of the key points is to seek the truth from the facts, openly and transparently release epidemic information and never allow cover or underreporting,” Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang said at a cabinet meeting on Friday. , Cabinet of China.
China, a country of 1.4 billion people, has reported an average of 109 new cases a day over the past week, according to a New York Times database. These would be welcome numbers in countries experiencing far worse – including the US, which on average has more than 250,000 new cases a day – but they are the worst in China since last summer.
China’s National Health Commission has not reported any new deaths, but the World Health Organization, which uses information from China, has so far registered 12 in 2021. The National Health Commission did not respond to requests to explain the discrepancy.
In Hebei Province, where the new outbreak is concentrated, officials last week declared a “wartime” that will soon show no signs of lifting.
Throughout the pandemic, officials have expressed particular concern about Beijing, the Communist Party’s central leadership. Last week, Hebei party secretary Wang Dongfeng promised to make sure the province was “the moat to protect Beijing’s political security.”
The eruptions, which come so long after with minimal cases, have increased anxiety throughout China, where residents in most places felt that the pandemic was a thing of the past.
New cases have also been reported in the northern province of Shanxi and the northeastern provinces of Heilongjiang and Jilin. Shanghai on Wednesday urged residents not to leave the city, announcing that people who had traveled to risky areas should be quarantined at home for two weeks and only leave after passing two tests, while those who had traveled to the most risky areas, faced quarantined public facilities.
In Wuhan, rumors swirled that the city could face a new closure; while these seemed unfounded, officials noticeably increased temperature control on some streets.
In Shunyi, a district in the northeastern part of Beijing that includes Beijing Capital International Airport as well as rural villages, residents have been ordered to remain inside since a wave of cases just before the new year. At Beijing’s main railway stations, workers sprayed disinfectant into public spaces.
After a taxi driver tested positive over the weekend in Beijing, authorities asked 144 passengers for further tests, according to The Global Times, a state tabloid. Now, anyone coming in a taxi or car service in Beijing needs to scan a QR code from their phone so the government can quickly track them down.
The government has reached plans to vaccinate 50 million people ahead of the lunar New Year next month, a holiday in which hundreds of millions of people traditionally cross the country to visit their families. By Wednesday, more than 10 million doses had been distributed.
Even with the vaccinations, officials have already warned people not to travel before the holidays.
“These measures, if implemented properly, can ensure that no major epidemic rebound occurs,” Feng Zijian, deputy director of China’s Center for Disease Control, said at a briefing in Beijing on Wednesday.
While the new restrictions have bothered millions, there does not appear to be any significant public opposition to them.
“For me, I am aware that measures such as a lockdown for the whole city are actually quite good,” said Zhao Zhengyu, a university student in Beijing who is now confined to her parents’ home in Shijiazhuang, where she was visiting during winter holidays when the eruption broke out.
Many in the city feared a repeat of Wuhan’s lockdown, but she sounded unhappy.
Zhao’s parents now work from home and only pick up groceries from a market in their residential complex. She lamented that she could not meet friends or study in the library, but said that learning online has become routine.
“Maybe we’re used to it,” she said.
The response underscored how quickly the government is mobilizing its resources to contain outbreaks.
After the shutdown was announced in Shijiazhuang on January 6, authorities collected more than 10 million coronavirus test specimens over the next three days – almost one for every resident, officials said at a city news conference. These tests showed 354 positive results, although some of the cases were asymptomatic.
Another round of mass-nucleic acid testing started Tuesday.
“This is actually a kind of wartime system – using wartime for social control in peacetime – and during a pandemic, this wartime system works,” said Chen Min, a writer and former newspaper editor who goes by the pen name Xiao Shu. Mr. Chen was in Wuhan last year when the city went into lockdown.
The nature of the country’s government gave it the tools to tackle the epidemic – although some measures seemed to be over the top.
“Chinese cities enforce a housing system – smaller ones have hundreds of residents, large cities have tens of thousands – and by closing the gates you can lock tens of thousands of people inside,” Chen said in a telephone interview. “Now that they are running into this kind of problem, they are sure to use this method. That would be impossible in Western countries. ”
Chris Buckley and Keith Bradsher contributed reporting. Claire Fu contributed research.