New National Covid Rules Spark Unrest in Guangzhou, Nerves in Shijiazhuang

Attempts to contain a coronavirus outbreak in Guangzhou have sparked mild unrest among those under lockdown. The city in Guangdong Province has logged over 40,000 cases since October but hovers on the edge of lockdown: some neighborhoods have been shuttered in line with the now-familiar playbook first adopted in Wuhan in early 2020, while others remain relatively open. The mish-mash of policy is in part a product of mixed messaging from the central government about the continuation of the national zero-COVID policy. New measures released last Friday loosened quarantine requirements for “secondary contacts,” known contacts of known contacts of diagnosed coronavirus patients, while still stressing the “severe” nature of the pandemic and the continued need to control outbreaks, among other points enumerated in the document. At The Financial Times, Gloria Li, Qianer Liu, Primrose Riordan and Edward White reported on restive Guangzhou, which has become an acute test of the government’s new pandemic control measures

“Officials were still discussing the need to lock down the city last week, as the number of infected people was rising so rapidly that it was causing the government to panic,” said an adviser at the Guangdong Provincial Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

[…] While Guangzhou has averted a citywide lockdown, at least 9mn residents across five of the city’s 11 main districts are facing heavy-handed restrictions on movement and are required to take daily tests.

[…] However, conditions in Guangzhou have sparked a flurry of isolated protests, mostly focused in so-called urban villages — groups of tenements built on former farmland and housing mostly poorer workers and families. [Source]

Media reports depict a tense situation in Guangzhou. City officials seem loath to implement a full lockdown, but have published plans to add 240,000 makeshift hospital beds to accommodate a surge in coronavirus patients. The city has also begun deporting migrant workers. One official told The South China Morning Post, “There are too many people, and the transfer is indeed very difficult and takes a long time. Moreover, many workers are reluctant to be sent back to their hometowns, but want to find a job elsewhere.” The unrest in Guangzhou has been centered in Haizhu District, which is home to most of the city’s migrant workers. Their deportation brings to mind scenes from the city’s outbreak in April of 2020, when African nationals living in Guangzhou were targeted with evictions and barred from eating at restaurants after a cluster of cases were traced to a restaurant in the city’s “Little Africa” district. Domestic migrant workers often face discrimination based on their COVID status. Truck drivers and delivery workers frequently find themselves stranded due to lockdowns as well. At The New York Times, Chang Che and John Liu reported on the migrant worker protest in Haizhu that went viral on social media

The restrictions have periodically prompted unrest, such as in Guangzhou on Monday evening, when throngs of residents marched down Qiaonanxin Street to protest the lack of food and daily necessities after being confined at home for three weeks, according to four owners of restaurants and shops on the street who were interviewed by phone.

[…] Many of the protesters were migrant workers from Hubei and its neighboring provinces working in Guangzhou’s textile industry, said Mr. Hu as well as another restaurant owner, whose surname is Dai.

Videos circulating on social media showed an overturned police vehicle, ransacked food provisions and altercations between residents and health officials. Officers at a police station in Haizhu, reached by phone, said that they did not know about the incident. [Source]

Wang Zilong, a student at the Journalism & Media Studies Centre at The University of Hong Kong, found that a number of news organizations including BBC News, The Guardian, Daily Beast, and Al Jazeera misleadingly included footage of  the 2017 Qingyuan protests in their coverage of the 2022 protests. The videos they published circulated widely on social media before those outlets picked them up. Such errors may be partly attributable to the difficulties foreign media face reporting on lockdowns. Don Weinland, who covers business and finance in China for The Economist, explained those difficulties in a Twitter thread: 

Days after the small-scale protests in Haizhu, images of two young women’s arrest in the same district went viral within China. The circumstances of their arrest remain unclear but early reports indicate they were detained when one refused to wear a mask while picking up a food delivery: 

Weibo soon began censoring posts sharing images of their arrest. Online criticism of Guangzhou officials’ management of the outbreak has surged despite generally strict censorship of criticism of the zero-COVID policy because some locals have taken to posting in Cantonese, a language most censors are unfamiliar with. CDT Chinese compiled dozens of examples of Weibo users cursing the government in Cantonese. At CNN, Jessie Yeung built on that reporting to examine the role of Cantonese in censorship evasion

“It does seem that using non-Mandarin forms of communication could enable dissenters to evade online censorship, at least for some time,” [Jean-François Dupré, an assistant professor of political science at Université TÉLUQ who has studied the language politics of Hong Kong] said. 

[…] Though Cantonese shares much of its vocabulary and writing system with Mandarin, many of its slang terms, expletives and everyday phrases have no Mandarin equivalent. Its written form also sometimes relies on rarely used and archaic characters, or ones that mean something totally different in Mandarin, so Cantonese sentences can be difficult for Mandarin readers to understand.

[…] “Learn Cantonese well, and go across Weibo without fear,” [one netizen commented.] [Source]

The situation in Guangzhou is made more tense by the release last Friday of 20 new rules that will govern the country’s COVID response going forward. The rules are perhaps contradictory as they ban “superfluous” measures to control the virus while stressing that measures to contain it “must not be relaxed.” At The New York Times, Alexandra Stevenson reported on the minor changes in China’s approach to the pandemic

People entering China will now be required to quarantine in a hotel for five days followed by three days of isolation at home. Previously, visitors had to spend 10 days in quarantine, with seven of those in a hotel or government facility.

Officials also scrapped a penalty system for airlines bringing in travelers with Covid and reduced some of their more burdensome testing requirements, which effectively limited the number of people entering the country. Several Chinese travel platforms said searches for international flights surged on Friday.

Domestically, the government limited its contact tracing, part of a broader strategy of mass testing that has led to hundreds of millions of people being thrown into quarantine under heavy guard, provoking anger and discontent. It also got rid of other measures that had left many people stuck at home for weeks just because they lived in a neighborhood where a Covid case had been detected. [Source]

Shijiazhuang, the capital of northern Hebei Province, has become a trial zone of sorts for China’s move away from zero-COVID. The city curtailed COVID testing and stopped demanding negative PCR tests as a precondition for entering restaurants, offices, and the subway even though it is currently dealing with an outbreak. A community official in a Shijiazhuang county told The Financial Times: “On the one hand, we were told to relax the overly strict Covid prevention rules. On the other hand, we could still get fired for not stamping out cases on time […] Our policy goals conflict with each other.” The changes in policy have triggered unease in the city, as many residents do not know what to make of the change in policy. Bloomberg News reported on Shijiazhuang citizens’ reactions to the perception that it was to become a testing ground for China’s new pandemic control strategy

“Without the testing, I wouldn’t be able to find out who is positive,” said Linda, a middle-aged manager with a state-run financial institution who asked to withhold her last name so she could speak freely. “I would be scared,” she said. “There will be no sense of security.” 

“My relatives were all purchasing tons of Lianhua Qingwen capsules because they were just confused about what will happen and are afraid of getting infected,” said Henry, a 26-year-old Shijiazhuang resident. One of his family members asked to keep their child home from primary school for fear they would contract Covid there, he said. 

[…] “If they are really giving up on Covid Zero, they need to make preparations in advance, including educating the population, or people will just freak out, said Huang Yanzhong, a senior fellow for global health at the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations. [Source]


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