Xi says China must stick to Covid Zero even as costs mount

Residents gathering behind barriers in a sealed-off area in Shanghai amid a lockdown, on April 11, 2022. PHOTO: REUTERS

BEIJING (BLOOMBERG) - Chinese President Xi Jinping says his government will stick to its zero-tolerance approach to Covid-19 even as public anger simmers in Shanghai and economic costs mount.

"Prevention and control work cannot be relaxed," Mr Xi said during a trip to the island province of Hainan, the official Xinhua News Agency reported late on Wednesday (April 13), the same day the financial hub saw a record 27,719 new cases. Officials implementing Covid Zero need to adhere to the principle of "people first and life first", Mr Xi said. "Persistence is victory," he added.

Mr Xi - who is likely to seek a third five-year term during a Communist Party congress later this year - is facing one of the biggest tests of his tenure. The lockdown of tens of millions of people in the city of Shanghai and the northeastern province of Jilin has fuelled widespread criticisms of his government's response to the highly infectious Omicron variant.

Residents short of groceries, medical care and patience have been making a rare display of pushback as they've been barred from leaving their homes. While there have been a few signs of easing, such as allowing Shanghai, Guangzhou and six other cities to cut quarantine times for some people, senior officials have also publicly argued that China must stick to its strict approach.

That strategy has involved mass testing, long quarantines and mostly closed borders. In addition to the social cost, the economic damage has been similarly substantial, with factories forced to shut and supply chains clogged.

Premier Li Keqiang has repeatedly warned of risks to economic growth, and the central bank is expected to cut its key policy interest rate for the second time this year on Friday and reduce the reserve requirement ratio within days to help bolster the economy.

Covid Zero has also added to tensions with the US, which this week ordered all non-emergency staff at its consulate in Shanghai to leave the country, prompting a spokesman at the nation's Foreign Ministry to accuse Washington of "attacking and smearing" China.

On Thursday, China reported 3,020 new confirmed coronavirus cases for April 13. Tuesday's tally was 1,513, the country's national health authority said.

Of the new cases, 2,999 were locally transmitted, the National Health Commission said, compared with 1,500 a day earlier.

The number of new asymptomatic cases, which China counts separately, stood at 26,391 compared with 26,525 on Tuesday.

There were no new deaths, leaving the death toll unchanged at 4,638.

As of April 13, mainland China had confirmed 171,382 cases.

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