Beijing cautiously reopens after the Covid 19 wave

Beijing cautiously reopens after the Covid 19 wave

BEIJING — China’s capital took tentative steps to reopen on Monday as much of Beijing lifted restrictions on dining out in restaurants and many workers returned to their offices. But fresh flare-ups of Covid-19 clusters across the country and new lockdowns in parts of Shanghai continued to pose major risks to the Chinese economy.

For more than a month, Beijing health officials imposed increasingly stringent measures on the city’s businesses and personal movements in a bid to stamp out the Chinese capital’s worst Covid-19 outbreak since the pandemic began. City officials say those efforts are working, as daily new infections have dropped to about a dozen cases or fewer in recent days after weeks of mass testing in much of the city’s more than 20 million residents.

By allowing restaurants, gyms and other businesses to reopen, Beijing authorities are signaling that they believe they have managed to bring the latest outbreak under control without resorting to the harsh lockdown measures recently imposed in Shanghai and China have been experienced elsewhere.

As of Monday morning, Beijing’s Second Ring Road, a major ring road that circles the Old City, was congested with bumper-to-bumper traffic. Commuters again filled subway cars on their way to work. Yang Fan, a 30-year-old social media producer, said he was struggling to find a seat on the train for the first time in a month.

Mr Yang said he was pleased with how government officials were controlling the recent outbreak in Beijing, and particularly that he had managed to avoid a widespread lockdown.

Commuters fill subway cars as Beijing eases its Covid-19 lockdown.


Photo:

Cfoto/Zuma Press

“It was tough at first,” he says. “But the result was good.” Mr. Yang said he is considering going out for dinner with friends on Monday night, but worrying about getting a table will prove difficult.

Beijing’s restaurants need all the help they can get from Mr. Yang and others like him.

Zhang Shengtao, operations manager at Huda Restaurant, a well-known local institution that serves crawfish and other specialties 24 hours a day, said the last month of restrictions has been the toughest period the restaurant has experienced in its roughly 12-year operation there . Employees took a 30% pay cut as the restaurant subsisted on take-out orders and a pop-up stand offering takeaway food, Mr. Zhang said.

When Huda’s staff learned on Sunday that dining at the restaurant would resume the next day, they immediately went to work preparing the restaurant for service. Diners began queuing at 9:30 p.m. Sunday night. At midnight, when the restaurant opened its doors, more than 350 people lined up and stretched all along the block, Mr. Zhang said.

“We’ve waited for this moment for so long,” Mr. Zhang said, adding that the restaurant is working to bring salaries back to their original levels after restrictions were eased.

A medical worker carried out a Covid-19 test in Beijing on Monday.


Photo:

TINGSHU WANG/REUTERS

Tackling Covid-19 outbreaks before they spread has become one of Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s key initiatives, an approach that has drained enormous state resources. Showcasing the strategy’s success is particularly important as Mr Xi seeks to break recent precedent and secure a third term at a closely watched Communist Party meeting later this year.

For much of 2020 and 2021, China’s leaders say its “zero Covid” strategy has served the country well. By largely closing its borders and aggressively tackling cases, China averted widespread illness and deaths in the United States and elsewhere.

However, the highly contagious omicron variant of the coronavirus challenged that approach — nowhere more visibly than in Shanghai. For the past two months, almost all of Shanghai’s 25 million residents have been locked at home due to government contracts that have brought China’s most economically important city to a standstill.

When rumors of an imminent Shanghai-style lockdown circulated in Beijing last month, it sparked panic buying of food as residents feared there would be food shortages.

Shanghai has started to open more in recent days, though many residents remain concerned the city will soon confine them to their homes again. Over the weekend, Jing’an County cordoned off 56 residential areas after detecting five new clusters of cases.

City officials reported Sunday that three new cases had been detected outside of quarantine facilities — that is, in the general population — a sign that Omicron transmissibility continues to pose challenges there.

In the northeastern city of Dandong, on the China-North Korea border, dozens of cases have surfaced in recent weeks, prompting authorities to lockdown areas across the city. North Korea is battling its first major Covid-19 outbreak and has turned to China, its closest friend, for help.

For China, the economic scars of ‘zero Covid’ could deepen in the coming months, economists say. In a sign of growing concerns about the economy among Chinese elites, late last month Premier Li Keqiang convened an unusual video conference with tens of thousands of officials from across China to urge them to work harder to save China’s economy. Many economists assume that China will not be able to reach its official growth target of 5.5% this year.

Shanghai residents took selfies outside and toasted champagne as the city emerged from more than two months of Covid-19 lockdown. But economic challenges lie ahead as China shows no signs of easing its zero-Covid strategy. Photo: Qilai Shen/Bloomberg News

Even as restrictions tightened in Beijing in recent weeks, some residents said they didn’t think the government would impose a full lockdown like in Shanghai. Many of the restrictions put in place also appear to have been unevenly enforced.

For example, the Liangma River in Beijing’s embassy district has become a popular spot for well-heeled Chinese, Western diplomats and others to socialize in recent weeks. To prevent such gatherings, authorities initially lined the river with fences and signs prohibiting such gatherings. But many circumvented the restrictions or simply ignored them.

During the day, retirees have started setting up card tables to picnic with their friends along the river. On a recent weekend evening, the city’s clubbing set parked Lamborghinis and other sports cars on a nearby street while a few vendors sold Jack Daniel’s whiskey and beer from the trunks of their vehicles.

write to Brian Spegele at brian.spegele@wsj.com

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