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China Is Managing Its Covid Outbreak One New Local Crisis at a Time

Qilai Shen | Bloomberg | Getty Images
  • Chinese authorities are trying to maintain their zero-Covid strategy that used swift lockdowns to help the economy grow in 2020.
  • But local officials now face multiple challenges at once: Keeping jobs whose performance hinges on controlling Covid outbreaks, limiting the spread of a highly transmissible variant and supporting enough growth to achieve the national GDP target of "around 5.5%."
  • China's steel-making hub of Tangshan city ordered that as of Sunday, all non-emergency vehicles —which would include trucks for transporting steel — are banned from local roads, except for those that obtain special approval.

BEIJING — As some parts of China reopen, others are imposing new Covid-related restrictions, reflecting the challenge government officials face in controlling the worst outbreak since early 2020.

Chinese authorities are trying to maintain their zero-Covid strategy that used swift lockdowns to help the economy grow in 2020. Beijing has increasingly emphasized how the strategy needs to be "dynamic."

But local officials now face multiple challenges at once: Keeping their jobs whose performance hinges on controlling Covid outbreaks, limiting the spread of a highly transmissible variant and supporting enough growth to achieve the national GDP target of around 5.5% set by Beijing.

"Officials at all levels must give top priority to epidemic response," according to a readout Friday of a top-level government meeting chaired by Chinese President Xi Jinping.

"Anyone who fails to perform their duties and responsibilities and thus leads to a drastic escalation will be investigated and held to account right away in accordance with discipline and regulations," the readout said.

Dozens of local Chinese officials have lost their jobs or received punishments after failing to prevent the latest spike of cases.

Mainland China's new daily Covid cases remained well above 1,000 over the weekend, with hundreds of asymptomatic ones.

The northern province of Jilin reported Friday the first two deaths in the latest Covid wave, which stems primarily from the highly transmissible omicron variant. The number of new cases and deaths is still low compared with other major countries.

Testing, road controls cause delays

On the economic front, regions are affected by business disruptions and uncertainty, even if stricter Covid controls don't necessarily halt production outright.

China's steel-making hub of Tangshan city ordered that as of Sunday, all non-emergency vehicles are banned from local roads, except for those that obtain special approval. Several districts ordered residents to stay home and told businesses such as gyms to close.

There was no specific order for steel mills. But Chinese financial news outlet Cailian reported, citing locals, that Tangshan's steel trade and logistics businesses had stopped work, while some producers had retained a few workers for basic production.

Tangshan reported nine confirmed Covid cases this weekend.

In southern China, the tech and manufacturing city of Shenzhen has kept ports open despite orders last week to halt other business activity and factory production.

Shipping giant Maersk said late last week Covid testing requirements for truck drivers and stricter road control between Shenzhen and nearby cities means trucking services in the area will likely "be severely impacted by 40%." That's up from the company's assessment a few days earlier of a 30% impact.

"Consequently, there will be longer delivery time and a possible rise in transport costs such as detour fee and highway fee," Maersk said.

'One policy per business'

Shenzhen reported 82 new cases over the weekend — relatively high for China. However, municipal authorities declared Sunday that the outbreak was "controllable." They announced the city would resume "normal" operations and production Monday, including public transportation.

It's less clear how normal life can be in practice. The city said anyone taking public transit must show a negative virus test taken within the last 48 hours.

Some neighborhoods remain under lockdown, and non-essential businesses are to remain shut, the city said. Authorities told parents to help their children with online learning — without making it clear whether businesses would allow employees to work from home.

Similarly, in a southern manufacturing center of Dongguan, local authorities emphasized the need for "targeted" Covid control measures, including "one policy per business" or factory.

Dongguan's city-wide lockdown measures announced last Tuesday are set to expire at the end of Monday, although public transit resumed operations on Friday.

The city reported a total of two new confirmed Covid cases over the weekend.

Shanghai has taken one of the most targeted lockdown policies in China, as authorities seek to balance economic growth with Covid control. The city reported 41 new confirmed cases for the weekend.

However, the outbreak is still taking its toll on big businesses. Shanghai Disney Resort announced it would be closed from Monday until further notice due to the pandemic.

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