China Places Over 22 Million on Lockdown Amid New Covid Wave

When a handful of new coronavirus cases materialized this month in a province surrounding Beijing — apparently spread at a village wedding party — the Chinese authorities bolted into action.

They locked down two cities with more than 17 million people, Shijiazhuang and Xingtai. They ordered a crash testing regime of nearly every resident there, which was completed in a matter of days.

They shut down transportation and canceled weddings, funerals and, most significantly, a provincial Communist Party conference.

By this week the lockdowns expanded to include another city on the edge of Beijing, Langfang, as well as a county in Heilongjiang, a northeastern province. Districts in Beijing itself, the Chinese capital, also shut down.

More than 22 million people in all have been ordered to remain inside their homes — double the number affected last January when China’s central government locked down Wuhan, the central city where the virus was first reported, in a move that was then seen as extraordinary.

The flare-ups remain small compared with the devastation facing other countries, but they threaten to undercut the success the country’s Communist Party has had in subduing the virus, allowing its economy to surge back after last year’s slump and its people to return to something close to normal lives.

The outbreaks, coming after so long with minimal cases, have increased anxiety across China, where residents in most places felt like 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 and announced that people who had traveled to risky areas should quarantine themselves at home for two weeks and leave only after passing two tests, while those who had traveled to the highest-risk areas faced quarantine in government facilities.

In Wuhan, rumors swirled that the city could face a new lockdown; while those appeared unfounded, officials noticeably stepped up temperature checks on some streets.

In Shunyi, a district in Beijing’s northeast that includes Beijing Capital International Airport as well as rural villages, residents have been ordered to remain inside since a surge of cases just before the new year. At Beijing’s main railroad stations, workers sprayed down public spaces with disinfectant.

After a taxi driver tested positive over the weekend in Beijing, the authorities tracked down 144 passengers for additional tests, according to The Global Times, a state tabloid. Now anyone getting in a taxi or car service in Beijing has to scan a QR code from their phone, allowing the government to quickly trace them.

The government has moved ahead on plans to vaccinate 50 million people ahead of the Lunar New Year next month, a holiday when hundreds of millions of people traditionally crisscross 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 ahead of the holiday.

“These measures, if well implemented, can ensure that no large-scale epidemic rebound occurs,” Feng Zijian, the deputy director of China’s Center for Disease Control, said at a briefing in Beijing on Wednesday.

A second round of mass nucleic acid testing began on Tuesday.

“In effect, this is a kind of wartime system — using the means of 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 governance gave it the tools to tackle the epidemic — even if some measures seemed over the top.

“Chinese cities enforce a residential system — smaller ones have several hundred residents, big ones have tens of thousands — and by shutting the gates you can lock in tens of thousands of people,” Mr. Chen said in a telephone interview. “Now whenever they run into this kind of problem, they’re sure to apply this method. That would be impossible in Western countries.”

Chris Buckley and Keith Bradsher contributed reporting. Claire Fu contributed research.

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