This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
Tensions are running high in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, which has been under total lockdown since the coronavirus epidemic emerged there more than a month ago, with local residents complaining of food shortages and rising prices.
While health officials reported 38 new deaths from COVID-19 on Wednesday, there was a fall in newly confirmed cases for the third day running in mainland China.
A total of 2,981 have died in mainland China, with more than 80,200 people infected in total, the National Health Commission said, citing 115 new cases in Hubei province, of which Wuhan is the capital, and only four elsewhere in the country.
In a video that went viral on social media on Tuesday, urban management officials, or chengguan, were seen beating up a man later identified as the employee of a supermarket in Wuhan’s Jianghan district.
The officers, who are tasked with maintaining a pleasant and litter-free urban environment, but who have a reputation for brutality against some of China’s most vulnerable people, beat Li Feng after he set baskets of newly delivered vegetables outside the door to save space.
“It’s not easy for local residents to buy groceries,” Li told local media. “Our store has limited floor space, and there is also very high demand.”
“We had placed several baskets of vegetables at the door … but they said we weren’t allowed to put it outside because it spoiled the appearance of the neighborhood,” Li said.
Li was surrounded by around 10 people and beaten after the chengguan called for backup, he said, adding that he had put his hand out to try to stop one of them from taking a photo of him.
Public anger at beating
The social media reaction to the video was largely angry, with some comments accusing the chengguan of abuse of power, and others suggesting they may have been trying to take the vegetables for their own use or profit.
“It was a very brutal attack by law enforcement, and hard to watch,” Bruce Lui, a journalism professor at Hong Kong’s Baptist University, told RFA. “This kind of violence will only be exacerbated given the kinds of pressures that people in Wuhan are under right now.”
“People can’t speak out because of tight security, but I’m guessing there’ll be a very strong backlash [against the ruling Chinese Communist Party] in future,” Lui said.
“Official cover-ups meant that the epidemic was allowed to spread … there is no cure, and many people are just waiting to die.”
“A lot of this is down to official inaction, and people will figure out the reason,” he said.
Wuhan last month implemented a system of internal passes and permits which strictly limit how far people living in gated residential communities can travel to shop.
Residents resorted to online deliveries and group-buying programs, but some have complained that group-buying is an even more expensive way to shop than going to the local store.
Hong Kong residents flown home
Meanwhile, authorities in Hong Kong on Wednesday chartered two planes to bring home more than 200 of the city’s residents who had been stranded in Hubei and Wuhan.
The city’s mainland affairs secretary Patrick Nip said 244 Hongkongers arrived back in their home city on two chartered flights on Wednesday, although three were denied permission to board because they were running a fever.
He said 200 passengers were evacuated from Wuhan, while the other 44 had been in other locations in Hubei. They included pregnant women, students with exams coming up, and people with urgent medical needs.
Two more flights are scheduled to bring home more Hongkongers on Thursday, as an estimated 3,800 Hong Kong residents remain in 37 towns and cities across Hubei, Nip said.
“We’re back in Hong Kong!” exclaimed one passenger as the Cathay Pacific plane docked at Hong Kong’s International Airport.
A passenger surnamed Yip said she was enormously relieved to be back after being stuck in Wuhan for more than 40 days.
“I arrived in Wuhan on Jan. 17, so I’m pretty happy to be back,” Yip said.
Hong Kong’s Hospital Authority said it would convert some general wards in government hospitals into isolation rooms, freeing up to 500 additional beds for coronavirus patients.
But it said that only around 30 percent of its 1,200 isolation beds are currently occupied. Many residents have been wearing masks, washing hands, and keeping social distance for weeks.
According to Ho Pak Leung, clinical associate professor at the Department of Microbiology of the University of Hong Kong medical school, there has been a dramatic fall in all forms of respiratory infections in the city during February, which he attributed to the wearing of masks in public places.
Some 99 percent of Hongkongers are believed to have worn masks outside last month in spite of government claims that it was unnecessary to do so.