China suspends social media accounts of COVID policy critics

BEIJING (AP) — China has suspended or closed the social media accounts of more than 1,000 critics of the government’s policies on the COVID-19 outbreak, as the country moves to open up further.

Popular social networking platform Sina Weibo said it had addressed 12,854 violations including attacks on experts, scholars and medical personnel and issued temporary or permanent bans on 1,120 accounts.

The ruling Communist Party has relied largely on the medical community to justify draconian lockdowns, quarantine measures and mass testing, all of which it abruptly abandoned almost last month, prompting a surge in new cases that has stretched medical resources to their limits. The party does not allow direct criticism and imposes severe restrictions on freedom of expression.

The company will “continue to further investigate and clean up all kinds of illegal content, and create a harmonious and friendly community environment for the majority of users,” Sina Weibo said in a statement on Thursday.

Criticism has largely centered on open-ended travel restrictions that have left people confined to their homes for weeks, sometimes without adequate food or medical care. Anger was also vented over the requirement that anyone who potentially tested positive or had contact with such a person be held for observation in a field hospital, where overcrowding and poor food and hygiene are commonly cited.

The social and economic costs eventually led to rare street protests in Beijing and other cities, which may influence the party’s decision to quickly ease the tougher measures.

China is now facing a surge in cases and hospitalizations in major cities and is preparing for further spread in less developed regions as the travel rush begins in the Lunar New Year, set to begin in the coming days. While international flights remain low, authorities say they expect domestic rail and air travel to double over the same period last year, bringing overall numbers close to those in the pre-pandemic 2019 holiday period.

The Ministry of Transport on Friday called on travelers to limit trips and gatherings, especially if they include the elderly, pregnant women, young children and those with underlying conditions.

Vice Minister Xu Qingguang told reporters at a briefing that people using public transportation are also encouraged to wear masks and pay special attention to their own health and hygiene.

However, China is moving ahead with a plan to end mandatory quarantine for people arriving from abroad starting Sunday.

Beijing also plans to remove the requirement that students in the city’s schools have a negative COVID-19 test to enter campuses when classes resume on Feb. 13 after the holiday break. The city’s education office said in a statement Friday that while schools will be allowed to move classes online in the event of a new outbreak, they should return to in-person instruction as soon as possible.

However, the end of mass testing, a very limited amount of basic data such as the number of deaths, infections and severe cases, and the possible emergence of new variants have prompted governments elsewhere to set virus testing requirements for travelers from China.

The World Health Organization has also expressed concern about the lack of data from China, while the United States requires a negative test result for travelers from China within 48 hours of departure.

Chinese health authorities publish a daily tally of new cases, severe cases, and deaths, but these numbers include only officially confirmed cases and use a very narrow definition of COVID-related deaths.

Authorities say that since the government ended compulsory testing and allowed people with mild symptoms to test themselves and recover at home, they can no longer provide a complete picture of the state of the latest outbreak.

On Sunday, the National Health Commission reported 10,681 new local cases, bringing the total number of confirmed cases in the country to 482,057. Three new deaths were also reported in the past 24 hours, bringing the total number to 5,267.

Those numbers are a fraction of those announced by the United States, which has put the death toll at more than 1 million among some 101 million cases.

But it’s also much smaller than estimates from some local governments. Zhejiang province, on the east coast, said on Tuesday it was seeing about 1 million new cases per day.

China has said testing requirements imposed by foreign governments – most recently Germany and Sweden – are not based on science and has threatened unspecified countermeasures. Its spokespeople said the situation was under control, and rejected accusations of not being prepared to reopen.

If a variant appears in an outbreak, it will be found through the genetic sequence of the virus.

Since the pandemic began, China has shared 4,144 sequences with GISAID, a global coronavirus data platform. That’s just 0.04% of the number of reported cases – a rate more than 100 times lower than in the United States and four times lower than in neighboring Mongolia.

Meanwhile, Hong Kong also plans to reopen some of its border crossings with mainland China on Sunday and allow tens of thousands of people to cross daily without being quarantined.

The semi-autonomous southern Chinese city has been hit hard by the virus and its land and sea border checkpoints with the mainland have been largely closed for nearly three years. Despite the risks, reopening is expected to provide a much-needed boost to Hong Kong’s tourism and retail sectors.

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