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China curbs nationwide travel surge ahead of Winter Olympics, Lunar New Year

Hankou railway station (Soramimi/WikiCommons)
January 23, 2022

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

Authorities in Beijing are imposing curbs on schools and restricting people’s travel through mass persuasion, mandatory testing and financial incentives in a bid to contain an outbreak of COVID-19 cases ahead of the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing.

Beijing resident Yao Ping said her child’s international school has closed early ahead of the Lunar New Year holiday period to limit the spread of the omicron variant in the city.

Public schools are operating under a “closed” system, while others have gone online, she said.

“Closed management means that when your child goes to school, only the children are allowed inside, along with the teachers and other staff,” Yao said. “For the past three days in Haidian and Xicheng districts, students have been taking online classes at home and not going to class.”  

“The official holiday doesn’t begin until Jan. 23, Monday,” she said.

Meanwhile, state-owned corporations and government agencies are putting pressure on their employees to stay in Beijing throughout the vacation.

“It’s mostly central government and state-owned companies that are requiring their employees to stay here for Spring Festival,” Yao said. “Private sector employees are allowed to go home, but then there’s the fear they won’t be able to return afterwards.”

China’s National Health Commission on Tuesday confirmed 171 new cases of COVID-19 in the past 24 hours, 102 of which were recorded in the central province of Henan, with 44 cases imported from international passengers.

Yao, whose business in involved with the Winter Olympics, said there are also restrictions on the movement of foreign athletes and training staff.

“All of this is about the safety of people at the Winter Olympics, and right now everyone is worrying about the athletes,” she said.

“There’s a large mall in the Olympic Village this year, so there’s no need to go out at all,” she said.

Late January is typically a time of mass travel in China, as hundreds of millions pile onto trains, planes, buses and highways to make it home in time for the traditional Lunar New Year’s Eve meal, which falls on Jan. 31 this year, ushering in the Year of the Tiger.

But with nationwide COVID-19 curbs in place requiring a green “health code” on a tracking and testing app, the annual rush appeared to have dwindled to a trickle in Beijing on Tuesday, with no large crowds visible at the city’s railway stations.

However, long lines had formed at PCR testing booths, while passengers also lined up to have their temperature checked before travel.

Many haven’t been home in years

A migrant worker surnamed Ma from the northeastern province of Heilongjiang, who currently lives in Beijing, said many like her haven’t been home in two or three years, due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“Some people are going to have New Year in situ, that’s true, but more are likely to travel back home,” she said. “Some haven’t been home in two or three years, so they definitely want to go.”

But many are stymied by the need to invest in a ticket, then provide a negative COVID test on the morning before travel.

“If you have a train ticket for noon tomorrow, you will have to do a COVID test at 7.00-8.00 a.m. this morning,” Ma said. “The results could come back the same day, or maybe not until the next morning.”

The government is also working hard to persuade people not to bother, she said.

“The government isn’t recommending that people return to high-risk areas, and if you do go back and wind up with a red health code [on the COVID tracker app], the it won’t be easy to travel back to Beijing again,” Ma said. “If there is an outbreak in your hometown, it will show up [on the app], and you won’t be able to go.”

Tough curbs are also in place for anyone traveling to the area where the Olympics is being held, near Zhangjiakou, Xuanhua and Chongli.

COVID-19 tests are being offered free with some tickets for passengers who have transited through medium- or high-risk areas, with a 24-hour turnaround, while large numbers of factories have been shutting down in and around the southern province of Guangdong, a Guangzhou resident surnamed Huang told RFA.

“A lot of factories closed on Jan. 10, because workers wanted to go home early, so … a lot of them have already left,” Huang said. “Now, there are PCR testing services at the exits of the expressways in all counties and cities.”