China cracks down on social media criticism of COVID policies


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 takes steps to roll back strict anti-virus restrictions.

Popular social media platform Sina Weibo said it had addressed 12,854 violations, including attacks against experts, scientists and medical staff, and issued temporary or permanent bans for 1,120 accounts, the Associated Press news agency reported.

The ruling Communist Party had largely relied on the medical community to justify its harsh lockdowns, quarantine measures and mass testing, much of which it abruptly abandoned last month, sparking a flurry of new cases that pushed medical resources to their limits.

The company “will continue to investigate and clean up all kinds of illegal content and create a harmonious and friendly community environment for the majority of users,” Sina Weibo said in a statement Thursday, as quoted by the AP.

Criticism has largely focused on the heavy-handed enforcement of regulations, including unrestricted travel restrictions that have forced people to be confined to their homes for weeks, sometimes confined without adequate food or medical care.

There was also anger at the demand that anyone who might have tested positive or had been in contact with such a person be confined to a field hospital for observation, citing overcrowding, poor food and hygiene.

Amid 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 pursue criminal charges against people accused of violating border quarantine regulations, according to a notice released by five government departments on Saturday.

Individuals currently in custody will be released and seized assets will be returned, the notice said.

The adjustments “were made after comprehensive consideration of the harm of the behavior to society, and are intended to adapt to the new situations of epidemic prevention and control,” the official website of the China Daily newspaper reported.

People outside Beijing Railway Station as the annual Spring Festival travel rush begins amid the coronavirus pandemic, in Beijing, China, 7 January 2023 [Tingshu Wang/Reuters]

China is facing a surge in cases and hospitalizations in major cities and could see further spread to other parts of the country with the start of the Lunar New Year travel rush, which is expected to begin in the coming days. The holiday, which officially runs from January 21, is the first since 2020 without domestic travel restrictions.

While international flights continue to be reduced, authorities expect domestic train and air travel to double in the same period last year, bringing the total number close to that of the 2019 holiday season before the pandemic hit.

The Department of Transport on Friday called on travelers to reduce travel and gatherings, especially if it concerns the elderly, 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.

Nevertheless, China is working on a plan to end mandatory quarantines for people arriving from abroad on Sundays.

Beijing also plans to remove the requirement for students in city schools to have a negative COVID-19 test to enter campus when classes resume after the holiday season on Feb. 13. While schools are allowed to move classes to online in the face of new outbreaks, they should return to face-to-face teaching as soon as possible, the city’s education bureau said in a statement Friday.

The end of mass testing, a very limited amount of basic data such as deaths, infections and serious cases, and the potential emergence of new variants have prompted governments elsewhere to institute virus testing requirements for travelers from China.

More than a dozen countries have imposed new travel regulations on travelers from China.

European Union experts this week “strongly encouraged” the bloc’s 27 member states to require COVID testing of people on flights from China and conduct random testing upon arrival.

Several EU countries – including Germany, France, Germany, Italy and Spain – have already announced COVID testing requirements for travelers coming from the Asian country.

The United States and Japan are among the non-European countries that have introduced similar measures.

China has said testing requirements imposed by foreign governments are not based on science and has threatened unspecified countermeasures.

Patients in the emergency department of the hospital
Patients lie on beds in a hospital’s emergency department during the COVID-19 outbreak in Shanghai, China, 5 January 2023 [File: Reuters]

The World Health Organization has also expressed concern about the lack of data from China. Chinese health authorities publish a daily tally of new cases, serious cases and deaths, but those numbers only include officially confirmed cases and use a very narrow definition of COVID-related deaths.

Authorities say that since the government ended mandatory testing and allowed people with mild symptoms to self-test and recover 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 confirmed cases to 482,057. Three deaths were also reported in the past 24 hours, bringing the total to 5,267.

The numbers are much smaller than estimates released by some local governments. Zhejiang, an east coast province, said on Tuesday it was seeing about a million new cases a day.

Beijing officials have said the situation is under control and dismiss allegations of a lack of preparation for reopening.

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