European businesses urge China to open up as Covid cases rocket

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European business leaders and diplomats in China have urged Xi Jinping’s administration to change course from its contentious zero-Covid policy and set the world’s second-biggest economy on a path to reopening just as Beijing and Guangzhou teeter on the edge of citywide lockdowns.

Health officials reported a daily record of 31,987 new locally transmitted Covid-19 infections on Friday, up more than 2,000 from Thursday. The Chinese capital is now partially locked down with schools, offices and malls mostly closed, restaurants shuttered for dine-in services and the city’s typically bustling streets almost empty.

In a letter sent to Yin Yong, the acting mayor of Beijing, Jörg Wuttke, president of the European Union Chamber of Commerce in China, expressed concern over the “increasingly stringent epidemic controls” and the lack of “reasonable explanations” for decisions to lockdown businesses and residential buildings.

“A lack of adequate preparation has resulted in district governments and/or communities managing the recent outbreak in the same way as they did previously, by locking down businesses — with several having been mandatorily closed despite not being in a high-risk area — residences and other public venues,” the letter said.

“This is very concerning, given that Shanghai’s experience from earlier this year has shown that after long-term lockdowns, many foreign nationals are likely to leave China. This would be detrimental to Beijing’s goal of developing into an international city.”

Shanghai, China’s most important international financial city, was locked down for two months after an uncontrolled outbreak.

The French embassy in Beijing on Thursday shared the concerns of the French Chamber of Commerce and Industry in China through social media, asking Beijing to move beyond its zero-Covid strategy of trying to eliminate all coronavirus cases.

The latest lockdowns have been ordered despite the State Council, China’s cabinet, reducing quarantine periods and stopping the tracing of second-degree close contacts of confirmed positive cases two weeks ago. The changes were aimed at easing pressure on the centralised quarantine system, which now houses more than 1mn people, and set China on a path to reopen.

But the contradictory policy directives to suppress coronavirus outbreaks, while limiting economic and social disruptions, have caused great confusion among local governments officials and the public.

The EU chamber has also pushed the government for clear timetables for a comprehensive Covid-19 vaccination rollout and “projected return to normality”.

Stark differences between policy and implementation “run contrary to the principle of being ‘scientific and precise’ . . . and has led to both uncertainty among Beijing’s citizens and a loss of business confidence,” the letter said.

Hundreds of thousands of Beijingers across the city’s 16 districts have been trapped inside their homes as city officials raced to quarantine residents in buildings with Covid infections. Several communities have begun to organise in WeChat groups pledging to support and protect neighbours who catch Covid and decide they want to quarantine at home.

News of the community organisation was quickly censored as authorities insisted on hauling away anyone infected to makeshift camps that have popped up around the city, which usually consist of rows of cots set up inside gymnasiums or convention centres. Lights in the quarantine camps are switched on 24 hours a day.

Cases have also ballooned in Guangzhou, the capital of Guangdong, southern China’s manufacturing hub. Given Guangzhou’s important role in China’s economy, authorities have tried to avoid a Shanghai-style citywide lockdown despite cases rising into the thousands. Instead they have imposed district-wide lockdowns.

The Guangzhou government is now arranging transport to send residents under Covid lockdown to their hometowns after some attempted to break out of the sealed off areas.

“[Residents were] breaking through barriers . . . [and] getting out of control,” said Zhang Yi, deputy director of the city’s health commission.

In Hong Kong, the number of US companies using the city as their regional headquarters dropped to 240, the lowest level since 2002.

Businesses in the city have been spooked by strict Covid policies, many of which were recently loosened, as well as the introduction of a tough national security law in 2020 to quell anti-government protests.

Edward White in Seoul, Ryan McMorrow and Maiqi Ding in Beijing, Primrose Riordan, William Langley and Gloria Li in Hong Kong

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