By Ken Moritsugu in Beijing
BEIJING (AP) — Classes suspended. Buildings and communities cordoned off. Mass screening of residents. A rush to stock up on food, just in case.
Beijing, China’s sprawling capital, is starting to look like other Chinese cities battling the latest wave of the omicron variant of the coronavirus.
Authorities are moving quickly to try to prevent a massive COVID-19 outbreak that could trigger a citywide lockdown like the one that paralyzed Shanghai for more than three weeks. The political stakes are high as the ruling Communist Party prepares for a major congress this fall in which President Xi Jinping seeks a third five-year term to reassert his position as China’s undisputed leader.
Xi and the party’s top decision-making body, the Politburo, on Friday reaffirmed their commitment to a “zero-COVID” policy, putting China at odds with much of the world. While many countries are dropping restrictions and trying to live with the virus, China is keeping its international borders largely closed and closing entire cities to all but essential travel.
The Politburo has acknowledged the economic cost of the lockdowns, saying efforts must be made to “minimize the impact of the outbreak on economic and social development”, the official Xinhua news agency reported.
Despite the repercussions on the economy and daily life, the zero COVID approach is being advocated by the Communist Party as a virtuous display of self-sacrifice under the slogan “Perseverance is Victory”. Officials frequently point to China’s relatively low death toll and have accused the United States and other countries of essentially giving up.
Li Bin, vice minister of China’s National Health Commission, cited China’s large population and insufficient medical resources.
“If the COVID response relaxes to let the virus spread, it will definitely lead to a large number of infections in a short time and a large number of serious and fatal cases,” Li said at a press conference on Friday.
Shanghai reported 52 more deaths on Thursday, bringing the toll to 337 in its ongoing outbreak. Liang Wannian, head of China’s COVID-19 expert team, told the conference that there are signs of improvement in Shanghai, but the situation remains serious. The city recorded about 15,000 cases on Thursday, accounting for the vast majority nationwide.
Beijing’s strategy of early detection and isolation appears to be working so far. As of Friday afternoon, 228 cases and no deaths had been reported since the outbreak began a week ago, although the daily number of new cases has climbed to nearly 50.
“I think Beijing can do better than other cities because Beijing is the capital of China,” said community worker Liu Xuan. “And my work is related to virus control and prevention, so I feel confident.”
A botched response to Beijing’s outbreak might not impact Xi’s plans for a third term, but it could damage the party’s reputation and with it, Xi’s leeway on issues such as staff appointments, experts said.
“Even if Xi Jinping himself is untouchable, a generalized sense of failure and disappointment is bad for a congressional year,” said Joseph Torigian, a China policy expert at American University in Washington, DC.
The pomp and circumstance in the preparation and during the meeting would contrast with the frustration, he said.
Liang, the head of the COVID-19 expert team, said citywide shutdowns can be avoided if early detection, reporting, isolation and treatment are done well. “Fighting Omicron… doesn’t necessarily mean locking down the whole city,” he said.
What remains uncertain is whether the highly contagious variant will breach Beijing’s defenses and whether containment measures will be enforced in a way that minimizes disruption to daily life and government and business work.
Beijing is not taking any risks. The government ordered the indefinite closure of schools and three rounds of testing of almost all of the capital’s 21 million people this week. When cases are discovered, entire buildings and sometimes neighborhoods are locked down.
Residents have generally complied with requests, joining long queues for tests and food, with some stretching outside supermarkets this week.
The cautionary tale for Beijing is Shanghai, China’s largest city, where millions of people have been stranded for more than three weeks. Food ran out at times, and rough enforcement and lack of preparation drew heavy criticism, despite government efforts to censor it.
Footage online showed residents grappling with police and confronting health workers, banging on barriers, shouting from their balconies and banging pots and pans to show their frustration.
The lockdown has dealt a heavy blow to the economy at a time when growth was already slowing. The International Monetary Fund cut its forecast for China’s growth this year to 4.4% due to shutdowns in Shanghai and other industrial hubs. That would be down from 8.1% growth last year and below the Communist Party’s target of 5.5%.
Liang said short-term pain would be traded for long-term returns to normal production, life and economic development. “I think it’s cost-effective and it’s kind of a balance as well,” Liang said.
Yu Changping, a doctor of respiratory medicine at Wuhan University People’s Hospital, agrees.
“The inconvenience to people’s lives or the economic impact is the pain we have to suffer and the price we have to pay,” Yu said. heavier casualties with greater and broader social and economic impact.”
Any gaps in the government’s response could spur citizens to take matters into their own hands, eroding party control, said June Teufel Dreyer, a China policy scholar at the University of Miami.
Shanghai has failed in areas such as food and medicine distribution and provisions for the elderly and pets. In response, residents banded together in ad hoc groups to provide relief, a development the party may have found worrying.
“Will the party-government be able to reimpose control once the feeling of crisis subsides? I don’t think they’ll find it too easy to do,” Dreyer said.
Associated Press video producer Olivia Zhang and researcher Yu Bing contributed to this report.