© Reuters. Guards in protective suits keep watch at the gate to a residential compound as coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreaks continue in Beijing, December 7, 2022. REUTERS/Thomas Peter
By Sophie Yu and Martin Quin Pollard
BEIJING (Reuters) – Searches on Chinese travel sites surged and social media platforms were flooded with delight and relief on Wednesday as the public cheered the biggest loosening of some of the world’s strictest COVID policies.
Travel platforms from Trip.com to Qunar said searches for air tickets to cities such as the tourist spots of Sanya and Harbin jumped as much as seven times after news of the looser rules was announced, with many people looking to travel around the Lunar New Year holiday in January.
China’s relaxation of its rules includes allowing infected people with mild or no symptoms to quarantine at home and dropping testing for people travelling domestically, marking an apparent end to the hugely unpopular zero-COVID strategy.
The policy has kept the number of infections in China extremely low by global standards but also choked its economy and had a devastating impact on the lives of many people.
Frustration with the rules boiled over into widespread protests late last month.
Wednesday’s announcement quickly soared to the most viewed topic on China’s Weibo (NASDAQ:) platform, with many people “finally” embracing a return to normal.
“The epidemic fight has gone on for three years, this is a history-making day,” one Weibo-user said comment.
Dozens of people also flocked to the Weibo account of Li Wenliang, a doctor in the Chinese city of Wuhan, where the virus first emerged, who died in 2020 after sounding an early alarm about COVID-19 and whose last post has been an online haven for those looking to vent about personal woes and public policies.
“Doctor, we’ve made it through, we’re going to be free,”
wrote one user. “Daylight is here,” wrote another.
CAUTIOUS OPTIMISM, EXHAUSTION
The news was also welcomed by foreign business groups, many of which had become increasingly outspoken about the damage the zero-COVID policy was having on China’s economy and the operations of their companies.
“Timely implementation will help stabilise China’s economy and get life back to normal,” the European Chamber of Commerce in China said of the 10 measures announced on Wednesday.
It urged that a clearly defined roadmap be provided to businesses and local governments.
It also urged China to roll out mRNA vaccines for domestic use as part of a vaccination drive with the elderly a priority.
The American Chamber of Commerce in China said it viewed any policy that pointed to opening up as positive, adding that the business environment needed to return to a level of predictability so companies could resume normal operations.
“Today’s measures focused on the domestic environment; however, we would also like to see further relaxation of inbound travel restrictions, continuing the progress that has been made on that front earlier this year,” Colm Rafferty, chairman of AmCham China, said in a statement.
Still, there was some concern on Chinese social media about whether the opening could unleash a wave of infections. Many people have been rushing to stock up on home testing kits as well as fever and cough medication.
Others wondered why it had taken so long, given that most of the world has lifted curbs and opted to live with the virus, even as it spread.
“A year ago the rest of the world did this, so why on earth didn’t we do this earlier?” one user wrote on WeChat. “The people are so exhausted,” wrote another.