In China, 300 coronavirus cases means public shaming, marooned travelers and a nationwide dragnet

HONG KONG, OCTOBER 1: Students hold Chinese national flags as they attend a flag-raising ceremony to commemorate the 72nd anniversary of the establishment of the People's Republic of China at a school in Hong Kong on October 1, 2021. (Photo by Miguel Candela/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
·4 min read

With tourists stranded at vacation spots, major cities under lockdown and whole train-loads of passengers placed in quarantine, Chinese authorities have enlisted vast swaths of the population to track down and smother the country's third outbreak of the delta variant this year.

On Friday, the National Health Commission reported 48 symptomatic coronavirus infections from local spread, bringing the number of confirmed cases from the latest outbreak to more than 300 people across 14 provinces.

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In many countries, those kinds of numbers would be untroubling or even a cause for celebration. But not in China, which remains steadfastly committed to eliminating the virus while most of the world shifts toward mitigation.

The arrival of the more transmissible delta variant in China earlier this year only served to strengthen the Chinese Communist Party's confidence in its "zero covid" approach and pride in its ability to mobilize the masses to stamp out outbreaks. 

Now, authorities have once again launched something akin to a nationwide manhunt to restrain the virus by tracking down the transmission chain and quarantining anyone with exposure - no matter how fleeting and irrespective of whether they had been vaccinated. 

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On Thursday, authorities halted two high-speed trains traveling to Beijing because of a single passenger on each who was deemed a close contact of a confirmed case. Despite no one on board being confirmed as a carrier, all of the nearly 350 passengers were put in centralized quarantine.

Chinese state media has released maps with bright red dots showing every city or town where cases have been confirmed, as well as intricate flowcharts with a jumble of arrows to illustrate transmission. 

In a bright red square at the center of one map sits Ejin Banner, a northeastern county of 36,000 bordering Mongolia, where one of the longest chains of infections began. Since the first cases were confirmed, more than 10,000 tourists have been stranded in Ejin, a popular destination in the Gobi known for picturesque red-leaved desert poplars in the fall. 

The Inner Mongolia government on Thursday said it would strive to get everyone home within three to five days, if they were proven healthy, using a system of end-to-end management to ensure they remain under observation on arrival.

Although the Chinese authorities have largely been successful in securing public buy-in for the elimination approach, it is not always popular in places where lockdowns have repeatedly disrupted daily life, such as Ruili, a border town in southwestern Yunnan that has endured five lockdowns this year. 

After Ejin Banner, lockdowns were also imposed in Lanzhou, a northwestern city of 4 million and the capital of Gansu province, and the northeastern Heihe, a border town adjoining Siberia, where neighborhood committees prevent outsiders from entering residential compounds and villages. 

In practice, containment measures often vary significantly across regions, with some local authorities focusing on theatrical but ineffective measures like using drones to spray disinfectant, often releasing promotional videos of their efforts. 

Some of the strictest measures have been implemented in Beijing, which is preparing to host a meeting of top Chinese Communist Party leaders as well as the Winter Olympics in February. In areas of the capital deemed to be at risk, public transportation has been curtailed and tourism halted.

Local authorities have also meted out severe punishments for those who fail to comply with containment measures, with Beijing police on Wednesday announcing 19 criminal investigations over individuals suspected of violating epidemic-related laws. 

In one case featured in state media, a trucker driving a cargo of frozen goods into the city from neighboring Hebei province was detained along with his company manager after police discovered they had forged a negative coronavirus test.

"At the time we were in a rush to deliver the goods and didn't realize this was such a serious matter," the driver's boss said in an interview with a local television channel. "We cased trouble for everyone. I hope you can all not do as we did and respect epidemic control policies."

In case the message was unclear, Chinese state broadcaster CCTV on Wednesday released an interview with a Beijing-based lawyer in which he explained that failure to follow coronavirus protocols could constitute "endangering public safety in dangerous ways" - a crime, he added, that carries the death penalty.

         

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The Washington Post's Pei Lin Wu in Taipei contributed to this report.

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