Millions of people in Beijing stayed home on Monday as China’s capital tries to fend off a Covid-19 outbreak with creeping restrictions on movement.
Beijing residents fear they may 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 there have said the eastern powerhouse is winning its battle against the country’s worst outbreak since the pandemic began.
Yet the Shanghai lockdown has intensified, causing outrage and rare protest in the last major economy still glued to a zero-Covid policy.
That policy has winded an economy which just months ago had been bouncing back from the pandemic.
Customs data released Monday said exports in April slumped to their lowest monthly rate since June 2020, as key supply chains became knotted by restrictions.
The American Chamber of Commerce in China found that many of its member companies in Shanghai were still shut, with others delaying investments across the country in the face of the disruption.
Chairman Colm Rafferty warned the business community was “bracing for a mass exodus of foreign talent”.
There is also a pressing political dynamic to China’s virus response, with President Xi Jinping pegging the legitimacy of his leadership on protecting Chinese lives from Covid.
Xi — expected to secure another five-year term later this year — has doubled down on the zero-Covid approach, despite mounting public frustration.
In Beijing, subway stations and offices were empty during the Monday-morning rush hour across its most populous district of Chaoyang, after officials stepped up a work-from-home order over rising Covid cases.
Given the “severe 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 are teaching online and gyms and entertainment venues remain closed.
“I feel very uncomfortable seeing so few people around,” Wang, a middle-aged cleaner waiting 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 Covid-19 infections confirmed on Monday, a tiny number by international comparisons.
“Working from home is a little annoying, but we need to respond to the needs of the community,” said Fang, a 35-year-old advertising professional queueing to get swabbed.
Some finance workers were staying at hotels near their offices as restrictions start to shape daily life in the city of 21 million.
A Beijing-based investment manager who has moved into a hotel near his workplace said his company had told him to “try not to go home” to avoid infection.
“Some of my friends have been advised not to take public transport to work, and to drive or take a bicycle, so as not to be affected by the spread.”
– Shanghaied –
Shanghai has borne the brunt of the country’s Omicron surge, with more than 500 deaths, according to official numbers.
Anger has seethed at the perceived bungling of virus controls, mixed messaging and heavy-handedness of Shanghai officials, including sweeping people with negative Covid tests into state quarantine and leaving entire neighbourhoods short of food.
Authorities have verified a video that ripped across social media over the weekend showing residents in Zhuanqiao Town neighbourhood clashing with hazmat-suited health authorities over food shortages.
“Police took action as soon as possible to persuade onlookers to disperse and calm the situation down,” a statement by the Zhuanqiao Covid response team said Sunday.
Daily case numbers have dwindled into the low thousands but the financial hub has imposed fresh restrictions on residents of multiple neighbourhoods, according to notices seen by AFP, including some previously declared lower-risk.