When a handful of new coronavirus cases emerged in a province around Beijing earlier this month – apparently spread at a wedding reception in the village – the Chinese authorities took action.
They locked down two cities with more than 17 million people, Shijiazhuang and Xingtai. They ordered a crash test regime for almost every resident, which was completed within a few days.
They stopped transportation and canceled weddings, funerals and, most importantly, a conference of the Communist Party in the province.
This week, the locks were expanded to include another city on the outskirts of Beijing, Langfang, and a county in Heilongjiang, a northeastern province. The districts in Beijing, the Chinese capital, were also closed.
In total, more than 22 million people have been ordered to stay in their homes – twice as many as last January when the Chinese central government locked Wuhan, the downtown area where the virus was first reported, in what was considered exceptional at the time.
The flare remains small compared to the devastation in other countries, but it threatens to undermine the country’s Communist Party’s success in fighting the virus, sending the economy back on track after last year’s slump and the population comes back close to normal life.
The urgency of the government’s current response contrasts with that of officials in Wuhan last year, who feared a backlash if they exposed the mysterious new diseases that then emerged. Local officials had held a Communist Party conference there, but it has now been canceled in Hebei despite knowing the risk of the disease spreading among the people.
Since Wuhan, authorities have created a playbook that mobilizes party cadres to respond quickly to new outbreaks by sealing off neighborhoods, running extensive testing, and quarantining large groups if necessary.
“In the prevention and control of infectious diseases, one of the most important points is to seek the truth from facts, to openly and transparently share epidemic information and never to allow it to be covered up or underreported,” said Chinese Premier Li Keqiang at a meeting on Friday the State Council, China’s Cabinet.
China, a country of 1.4 billion people, has reported an average of 109 new cases per day over the past week, according to a New York Times database. Those would be welcome numbers in countries where things are far worse – including the United States, which averages more than 250,000 new cases a day – but they’re the worst in China since last summer.
China’s National Health Commission has not reported any new deaths, but the World Health Organization, using information from China, has recorded 12 so far in 2021. The National Health Commission did not respond to requests to explain the discrepancy.
In Hebei, the province where the new outbreak has concentrated, officials declared a “state of war” last week with no signs of an early lifting.
During the pandemic, officials were particularly concerned about Beijing, home to the central leadership of the Communist Party. Last week, Hebei Party Secretary Wang Dongfeng pledged to ensure that the province is “the moat for Beijing’s political security.”
The outbreaks, which have occurred with minimal cases after such a long time, have heightened concern across China, where residents in most places felt the pandemic was a thing of the past.
New cases have also been reported in northern Shanxi Province and northeastern Heilongjiang and Jilin provinces. Shanghai urged residents not to leave the city on Wednesday, announcing that those who had traveled to risk areas would be quarantined for two weeks and only leave after two tests, while those who had traveled to areas with At the highest risk, government facilities were quarantined.
Jan. 13, 2021, 9:04 p.m. ET
Rumors swirled in Wuhan that the city might face another lockdown; While these appeared unfounded, the officials noticeably tightened temperature controls on some streets.
In Shunyi, a district in northeast Beijing that includes Beijing Capital International Airport and rural villages, residents have been ordered to stay indoors since a spate of cases just before the New Year. At Beijing’s main train stations, workers sprayed disinfectant in public spaces.
After a taxi driver tested positive in Beijing over the weekend, authorities tracked down 144 passengers for additional tests, according to The Global Times, a state tabloid. Now anyone who gets into a taxi or car service in Beijing has to scan a QR code from their phone so that the government can quickly track them down.
The government has pushed ahead with plans to vaccinate 50 million people before next month’s New Year celebrations, a holiday that traditionally hundreds of millions of people cross the country to visit their families. More than 10 million cans had been distributed by Wednesday.
Despite the vaccinations, officials have already warned people not to travel before vacation.
“If these measures are well implemented, it can ensure that there is not a major epidemic recovery,” Feng Zijian, deputy director of the Chinese Center for Disease Control, said at a briefing in Beijing on Wednesday.
While the new restrictions have pestered millions, there doesn’t seem to be any significant public opposition to them.
“In my opinion, measures like a city-wide lockdown are actually pretty good,” said Zhao Zhengyu, a Beijing university student who now lives in her parents’ home in Shijiazhuang, where she was on winter hiatus when the outbreak broke out there.
Many in the city feared a repeat of Wuhan’s lockdown, but it sounded unimpressed.
Ms. Zhao’s parents now work from home and only collect groceries from a market in their residential area. She complained that she couldn’t meet friends or study in the library, but said that online learning had become routine.
“Maybe we’ve gotten used to it,” she said.
The response underscored how quickly the government is mobilizing its resources to contain outbreaks.
After the lockdown was announced in Shijiazhuang on January 6, authorities collected more than 10 million coronavirus test samples over the next three days – almost one for every resident, officials said at a press conference in the city. These tests gave 354 positive results, although some of the cases were asymptomatic.
A second round of mass nucleic acid testing began on Tuesday.
“In fact, this is a kind of war system – that uses wartime social control in peacetime – and that war system works during a pandemic,” said Chen Min, a writer and former newspaper editor who goes by the pseudonym Xiao Shu. Mr. Chen was in Wuhan last year when the city was locked down.
The way the country was governed gave him the means to fight the epidemic – even if some measures seemed excessive.
“Chinese cities are enforcing housing systems – smaller ones have hundreds of residents, large ones tens of thousands – and if you close the gates you can lock in tens of thousands of people,” Chen said in a telephone interview. “If you run into this type of problem now, you will surely use this method. That would be impossible in western countries. “
Chris Buckley and Keith Bradsher contributed to the coverage. Claire Fu contributed to the research.