China imposes tough new restrictions on 23 million people after Covid outbreak

China has imposed its most widespread restrictions since the start of the coronavirus pandemic last year, imposing travel restrictions on around 23 million people and putting some areas on lockdown after a sudden increase in cases.

Beijing reported that the total number of symptomatic cases in China surpassed 100 on Wednesday, the largest outbreak since last July. Ninety of the new infections were in Hebei Province, next to Beijing.

Residents of Shijiazhuang, Xingtai and Lanfang, three cities in the province, have not been able to leave since Tuesday. More than 10 local governments across the country, including in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangdong, have also called on residents to halt all but essential travel.

Shijiazhuang began mass testing for Covid-19 for all residents on Tuesday for the second time this month. The first round of tests revealed 354 positive cases among 10 million people.

Authorities want to limit the chances of the virus spreading during the Lunar New Year break next month. The seven-day national holiday is typically the world’s largest annual mass migration, when hundreds of millions of urban workers return to their family homes in the provinces.

The new restrictions were imposed before a visit to a World Health Organization team, who will arrive in China on Thursday to investigate the origins of Covid-19 after a series of visa approval delays. Beijing has been keen to spread the story that the virus originated outside of China, despite the first mass epidemic occurring in Wuhan.

Local governments have not indicated penalties for those who break the rules, but state-owned companies and government agencies have implemented penalties for employees.

Two Beijing SOE employees told the Financial Times that their salaries would be suspended if they left the city. Another said they had to write a self-criticism note after leaving Beijing without talking to their manager.

Several city governments and businesses in southern Guangdong province offer payments to residents to encourage them to stay.

The Foshan city government has said it will spend Rmb 1 million ($ 155,000) in grants for those who have stayed behind even though they have families outside the city.

Holidays are particularly important in China due to the prevalence of rural workers and young professionals living in cities, for whom it is the only annual opportunity to visit their parents or children.

Some out-of-town workers are unhappy with the directive to stay put, saying it exposes divisions in Chinese society. Staying in town during the holidays benefits those who have been successful in buying homes and securing the coveted urban household listings known as hukou.

“Our managers say they will stay in Shenzhen for the New Year, but in reality many managers already have families here, they would stay here anyway,” said Suki Lin, a teacher in Shenzhen.

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“Those who are really affected are people like us, the ‘Shenzhen Floats’, who are renting their apartments and whose families are back in their hometown,” Ms. Lin added.

Some officials also complained about unequal treatment, as private companies generally did not apply such severe penalties.

“What kind of impact can these controls have? Shenzhen is still a city dominated by private companies, and most of these companies have not stopped their employees from leaving. We’re just a small group, ”said Danny, a government employee in Shenzhen who declined to give his full name.

Additional reporting by Qianer Liu in Shenzhen

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