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China puts 13 million residents on lockdown ahead of Beijing Winter Olympics

People lining up at outdoor coronavirus testing center
Residents of the Chinese city of Xian line up for coronavirus tests Tuesday.
(Li Yibo / Xinhua)

China put a city of 13 million people into lockdown Thursday to stamp out an increase in coronavirus infections as the country doubles down on its “zero tolerance” policy just weeks before it is set to host the Winter Olympics.

The restrictions in the northeastern city of Xian took effect at midnight Wednesday night, with no word on when they might be lifted. They are some of the harshest since China imposed a strict lockdown last year on more than 11 million people in and around the city of Wuhan, where the coronavirus was first detected in late 2019.

One person from each household will be allowed out every two days to buy household necessities, a government order said. Other family members are required to stay at home, although the rule was not being rigorously enforced, according to some social media posts. People who happened to be staying in hotels became stuck.

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There was no word on whether the coronavirus was the new Omicron variant or the far more common Delta variant. China has recorded just seven Omicron cases: four in the southern manufacturing center of Guangzhou, two in the southern city of Changsha and one in the northern port of Tianjin.

Although the latest outbreak is about 620 miles southwest of the Olympic host city of Beijing, any sign that the pandemic might be worsening in China will raise questions about whether and how it will manage to welcome thousands of athletes, officials and journalists when the Winter Games open in just weeks, on Feb. 4.

On the one hand, there is a tremendous amount of national pride and investment riding on the Olympics and few would want a cancellation, postponement or dramatic re-imagining at this late stage. On the other, Chinese authorities have adopted strict measures throughout the pandemic under their policy of seeking to stamp out every last case, and it’s hard to see how welcoming so many people from abroad will square with that strategy.

Shanghai Disneyland will remain closed Monday and Tuesday because a single visitor over the weekend was later found to have COVID-19.

That zero tolerance policy, which has led to frequent lockdowns, universal masking and mass testing, has not been entirely successful. It has resulted in massive disruptions to travel and trade, but Beijing credits it with largely containing the spread of the coronavirus. Overall, China has reported 4,636 deaths and 100,644 cases of COVID-19.

Xian, the capital of Shaanxi province, a major center of industry and a repository of imperial relics, including the famous terra cotta warriors, reported another 63 locally transmitted cases Thursday, pushing the city’s total to at least 211 over the last week.

China has also been dealing with a substantial outbreak in several cities in the eastern province of Zhejiang near Shanghai, although isolation measures there have been more narrowly targeted.

“We are not receiving any new guests, and no present guests are allowed to leave the hotel,” said a receptionist at the Hanting Hotel in Xian, who only gave her surname, Li.

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Staff and guests are required to be tested every two days, Li said. “There will be an impact on our business, and we have no idea how long it will last.”

The owner of a local bookshop said he had closed 10 days before, “fearing the worsening of the epidemic situation.”

“I am now staying at home watching television,” said the owner, who gave only his surname, Xiao.

Movement outside his compound required permission from the local neighborhood committee, he said. “I think the situation will get better eventually, and I don’t worry at all because we have the government behind us,” Xiao said.


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