The northern Chinese city of Shijiazhuang has been tiptoeing away from Beijing’s most draconian pandemic measures, in what some see as a test case for a gradual retreat from President Xi Jinping’s strict zero-Covid policy.
As policymakers struggle to find a path forward for the country amid surging infections and a devastated economy, the city of 11mn has curtailed population-wide Covid-19 testing this week, despite an Omicron wave in the area. Public transport systems and some malls, restaurants and office buildings have stopped checking for negative test results for entry, a common practice in many cities.
The shift comes after China’s cabinet unveiled a set of measures last week to relax the country’s pandemic policies. This has spurred cities across the country to reduce testing, giving rise to market hopes that China could be subtly shifting away from zero-Covid.
Further hints have come from Guangzhou, southern China’s manufacturing hub, where local officials have not imposed a full lockdown on the city, even though it recorded 5,124 new cases on Monday.
The changes in Shijiazhuang have been subject to an onslaught of local media attention, which prompted the city’s top official, Communist party secretary Zhang Chaochao, to deny on Monday that the city was attempting to live with Covid.
“We are by no means giving up, nor totally letting it go,” he said while visiting a local university that was struggling with rising coronavirus cases. “This is absolutely not a so-called full opening up.”
By Tuesday morning, the city had also promised to reopen some of the Covid testing booths dotting city streets, which were shuttered just days prior, as public backlash against living with Covid grew.
Residents who spoke to the Financial Times said they remained fearful of the virus and that some schools, office buildings and hotels had continued to demand Covid test results for entry. This caused throngs of people to line up at city hospitals, which continued to administer tests for a fee.
“I am a bit scared as I don’t know what will happen next,” said Li Yang, a real estate broker in the city. “But we have to face it. Opening up is the trend and people need to keep living.”
Li said he had stopped working for the time being. “Many of my clients — landlords — won’t allow strangers to come to their apartments [anymore],” he said.
Five residents of Shijiazhuang said the fluid situation made them nervous and that the official tally of 440 cases on Tuesday undercounted the extent of the outbreak after the testing programme was reduced.
On social media, posts showed parents pulling their children out of schools, and local media reported pharmacies were running out of Lianhua Qingwen, an herbal remedy believed to alleviate coronavirus symptoms. Searches for oxygen machines spiked 400 per cent on Tencent’s WeChat app.
“I don’t want to bring the virus back to my family,” said Mr Gu, a 23-year-old resident. He was only venturing out to his office, which was no longer checking his Covid test results, he said.
The rapidly changing situation points to the difficulties local officials have with interpreting Beijing’s new measures.
“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,” said a community official in Zhengding, a county under Shijiazhuang. “Our policy goals conflict with each other.”
Meanwhile, the Communist party’s mouthpiece, the People’s Daily, published an opinion piece on Tuesday that again called for the country “to unswervingly implement the dynamic zero-Covid policy”.
“It’s quite a confusing situation [in Shijiazhuang],” said Ting Lu, an economist at Nomura. “Maybe it’s a pilot city for living with Covid and maybe not — policy in China is difficult to interpret. It is worth watching closely.”
Additional reporting by Nian Liu in Beijing