Coronavirus pandemic

Beijing exercises restraint amid bid to stem new outbreak

Residents under lockdown inside a compound in Beijing waiting to be taken to a site for Covid-19 testing yesterday. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
Residents under lockdown inside a compound in Beijing waiting to be taken to a site for Covid-19 testing yesterday. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
Customers inside a Beijing supermarket yesterday. Shops, restaurants and hair salons in many neighbourhoods in the city are still operating, despite the latest coronavirus outbreak linked to the Xinfadi market.
Customers inside a Beijing supermarket yesterday. Shops, restaurants and hair salons in many neighbourhoods in the city are still operating, despite the latest coronavirus outbreak linked to the Xinfadi market.PHOTO: REUTERS

Some food traders and housing complexes hit by govt curbs, but businesses elsewhere in city still open

BEIJING • At an apartment complex in southern Beijing that is under lockdown, residents could not leave their homes in a gated cluster of low-rise brick buildings.

Uniformed security guards and medical workers in protective gear watched the gate.

But just around the corner in the Baizhifang neighbourhood was a different world. Shops were open. A supermarket was doing brisk business. Residents came and went and seemed unfazed by a new coronavirus outbreak.

"It should not be as serious as last time," said Mr Johnny Zhao, a resident who wore a white face mask as he walked towards the supermarket. "The government is very experienced now."

As China tries to stifle the new outbreak in its capital city, it is applying the principle of restraint.

The brunt of the government's measures has been borne by food traders at markets that were sealed off after Covid-19 cases were found, and by the residents of over four dozen apartment complexes placed under lockdown.

But in many other Beijing neighbourhoods, shops, restaurants and even hair salons are still operating.

Many cars are still on the road. City sidewalks remain busy.

Beijing's leaders are trying to stamp out the latest outbreak, now at 183 infections after 25 more were announced yesterday morning. But they are not crushing the entire city, and its nascent economic revival, with heavy-handed restrictions.

The approach contrasts with China's earlier efforts to contain the virus in the central province of Hubei and its capital city Wuhan, where the coronavirus was first detected late last year.

For over two months, the city of 11 million was under a tight lockdown that required support from tens of thousands of doctors, party officials and security personnel.

It helped to control the outbreak but also stalled the economy.

If successful, the new approach of restraint being taken in Beijing could be a bellwether for how China may handle future outbreaks.

"You cannot expect people to accept the pain for too long," said Dr Yanzhong Huang, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations.

"Because then you have unemployment problems and even emotional stresses that could all have huge implications for social and political stability."

It is a dilemma that Mr Chen Tao, a 34-year-old vegetable farmer in Beijing, knows too well. His business selling produce at the vast Xinfadi wholesale food market in the city's south-west came to an abrupt halt a week ago when the government sealed off the site at the centre of the new outbreak.

Earlier this week, he loaded chrysanthemum greens onto a motorised cart and parked it across the street from the market, but practically no shoppers showed up.

"What can I do?" he asked. "The vegetables have been growing in the field for a month, and I can't let them rot in the field."

China's President Xi Jinping has not publicly discussed Beijing's outbreak, but he had called repeatedly this spring for a "people's war", or all-out mobilisation, to stamp out the coronavirus.

There are still traits of that in Beijing's latest effort. Schools have been closed across the city. At least half the flights out of the city and essentially all bus services to other provinces have been cancelled.

City officials say their cautious approach is bearing fruit: The number of new cases per day is already dropping.

Officials in Beijing appear increasingly confident that they have caught the outbreak before it could spin out of control through untraceable infections.

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 20, 2020, with the headline 'Beijing exercises restraint amid bid to stem new outbreak'. Print Edition | Subscribe