BEIJING – Crowds of people in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou crashed through Covid-19 barriers and marched down streets in chaotic scenes on Monday night, according to videos posted online, in a show of public resentment over coronavirus curbs.
Among all the latest outbreaks in China, Guangzhou has the biggest caseload, with new daily infections of Covid-19 topping 5,000 for the first time and fuelling speculation that localised lockdowns could widen.
Videos posted and widely shared on Twitter that Reuters could not independently verify showed noisy scenes in Guangzhou’s Haizhu district late on Monday night of people charging down streets and remonstrating with white hazmat-suit-clad workers.
Several hashtags related to the topic of “riots” in the area were scrubbed from China’s Twitter-like Weibo by Tuesday morning. Twitter is blocked in China.
Neither the Guangzhou city government nor the Guangdong provincial police responded to Reuters’ requests for comment.
On Tuesday, the authorities reported 17,772 new local Covid-19 infections for Monday, up from 16,072 a day earlier and the most since April, even as many cities scale back routine testing after the authorities announced measures last week aimed at easing the impact of heavy coronavirus curbs.
In the capital Beijing, new infections hit a record high of 462 for Monday, up from 407 a day earlier. Major cities such as Chongqing and Zhengzhou were among the worst-hit.
Still, China is scrambling to limit the damage of its zero-Covid-19 policy nearly three years into the pandemic, as the latest in a spate of dismal economic reports showed retail sales fell in October and factory output grew more slowly than expected.
While many residents have expressed guarded optimism after last Friday’s announcement that some of the stringent Covid-19 policies would be eased, concerns grew this week over the worsening outbreaks and there was confusion as some cities halted or adjusted regular testing.
Monday night’s scenes from Guangzhou were the latest outpouring of frustration over Covid-19 curbs that have triggered frequent lockdowns and enforced quarantines under a policy that China says saves lives.
In October, a Covid-19 outbreak at a massive Foxconn plant in Zhengzhou sparked chaos, with many workers fleeing, including by climbing fences, hobbling production.
In Guangzhou, home to nearly 19 million people, rising case numbers have fuelled speculation that a handful of district-level lockdowns could be expanded.
“The infection curve of Guangzhou is tracking the pace of Shanghai’s March-April outbreak, raising the question of whether a city-wide lockdown will be triggered,” JPMorgan analysts wrote, referring to Shanghai’s two-month lockdown in 2022 that sparked widespread unrest. “It would become a testing point regarding the government’s determination to push for the relaxation of Covid-19 control measures.”
JPMorgan estimates that cities with more than 10 new cumulative cases in the past week are home to 780 million people and account for 62.2 per cent of gross domestic product – roughly triple the levels seen at the end of September.
Under China’s new rules, testing efforts are to be more targeted, easing what has been a significant financial burden on cities.
On Monday, Beijing’s most populous district of Chaoyang moved some testing sites closer to residential compounds.
While that increased the overall number of sites, it also led to long waiting times for many, fuelling frustration, as many workplaces and other venues still require negative test results from within the past 24 hours.
On Weibo, a hashtag on testing booth closures was flooded with critical comments on Monday night before being censored. “What are working people supposed to do?“ wrote one Weibo user. Another asked: “What kind of brain came up with this policy?“
On Tuesday, state broadcaster CCTV said Chaoyang was adding more testing sites, including near offices.
Last Friday’s easing announcement sparked a market rally on hopes that China is signalling plans to end a policy that has all but shut its borders and caused frequent lockdowns, possibly starting after the annual session of parliament next March.
But experts warn that full reopening will require a massive vaccination booster effort, given low levels of herd immunity resulting from China’s isolation during the pandemic. It will also require a change in messaging, they say, in a country where catching Covid-19 is widely feared.
In Shanghai, which has been reporting relatively low infection numbers, including 16 for Monday, entire apartment blocks were still being sealed off and the Shanghai Disney Resort has been shut since Oct 31 after a visitor tested positive for Covid-19.
While the central government has urged a more flexible approach to controlling outbreaks, the local authorities still have wide leeway to lock down buildings they assess as high risk.
“The rules are very clear, so why is our building shut?” asked a Shanghai retiree whose building was sealed off with tape on Monday morning after a “close contact” had been taken away and quarantined. REUTERS