Millions of people in Beijing stayed at home on Monday as they did in China capital seeks to fend off a Covid-19 outbreak with creeping restrictions on movement.
Beijing residents fear they will soon find themselves in the grip of the same draconian measures that have trapped most of Shanghai’s 25 million people at home for weeks.
Officials said the eastern power plant is winning its battle against the country’s worst outbreak since the start of the pandemic.
Yet the Shanghai blockade has intensified, causing outrage and rare protests in the last major economy still glued to a zero-Covid policy.
That policy has undermined an economy that just a few months ago was recovering from the pandemic.
Customs data released on Monday said April exports plummeted at the lowest monthly rate since June 2020 as major supply chains were stalled by restrictions.
The US Chamber of Commerce in China found that many of its Shanghai affiliates were still closed, while others were delaying investment across the country in the face of the hiatus.
President Colm Rafferty warned that the business community was “preparing for a mass exodus of foreign talent”.
There is also dynamic political pressure on the Chinese virus response, with President Xi Jinping arguing for the legitimacy of his leadership in protecting Chinese lives from Covid.
Xi – who is expected to secure another five-year term by the end of the year – has doubled down on the zero-Covid approach, despite growing public frustration.
In Beijing, subway stations and offices were empty during Monday morning rush hour in its most populous district of Chaoyang, after officials stepped up a work-from-home order due to rising Covid cases.
Given the “serious and complicated” situation in the capital, official Xu Hejian told reporters that residents should not leave the city while recent negative Covid tests will be needed to enter public places, including offices and supermarkets.
Schools teach online and gyms and entertainment venues remain closed.
“I feel very uncomfortable seeing so few people around,” Wang, a middle-aged cleaning lady who waits outside a restaurant for her shift to start in the popular Sanlitun area, told AFP.
Beijing has reported hundreds of infections in recent weeks, with 49 new infections from Covid-19 confirmed on Monday, a small number according to international comparisons.
“Working from home is a bit of a nuisance, but we have to respond to the needs of the community,” said Fang, a 35-year-old ad who queues to get a swab.
Some financial operators were staying in hotels near their offices as restrictions begin to shape daily life in the city of 21 million people.
A Beijing-based investment manager who moved to a hotel near his workplace said his company had told him to “try not to go home” to avoid contagion.
“Some of my friends have been advised not to take public transport to work, to drive or to take a bicycle, so as not to be affected by the spread.”
– Shanghai –
Shanghai has borne the brunt of the Omicron wave in the country, with over 500 deaths, according to official numbers.
Anger has grown over the perceived mess of virus checks, mixed messaging and heavy handing by Shanghai officials, including bringing people with negative Covid tests to state quarantine and leaving entire neighborhoods short of food.
Authorities verified a video that appeared on social media over the weekend showing residents of the Zhuanqiao neighborhood clashing with health authorities in fireproof overalls over food shortages.
“The police intervened as soon as possible to persuade onlookers to disperse and calm the situation,” a statement from Zhuanqiao’s Covid response team said Sunday.
The number of cases per day has dropped to a few thousand, but the financial hub has imposed new restrictions on residents of multiple neighborhoods, according to warnings seen by AFP, including some previously declared low-risk.