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BEIJING: 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 media platform Sina Weibo said it addressed 12,854 violations, including attacks on experts, academics and medical workers, and issued temporary or permanent bans on 1,120 accounts.
The ruling Communist Party had relied heavily on the medical community to justify its harsh lockdowns, quarantine measures and mass testing, almost all of which it abruptly abandoned last month, leading to an increase in new cases that have pushed medical resources to their limits. The party allows no direct criticism and imposes strict limits on freedom of expression.
The company “will continue to intensify the investigation and cleanup of all kinds of illegal content, and create a harmonious and friendly community environment for the majority of users,” Sina Weibo said in a statement dated Thursday.
Criticism has largely focused on tough enforcement of regulations, including indefinite travel restrictions that have seen people confined to their homes for weeks, sometimes locked inside without adequate food or medical care. Anger was also expressed over the requirement that anyone who potentially tested positive or had been in contact with such a person be confined for observation in a field hospital, where overcrowding, poor food and hygiene were routine. quoted.
The social and economic costs ultimately prompted rare street protests in Beijing and other cities, possibly influencing the party’s decision to quickly ease the toughest measures.
Under the latest changes, China will also no longer bring criminal charges against those accused of violating border quarantine rules, according to a notice issued Saturday by five government departments.
Those currently detained will be released and seized property returned, the notice said.
The adjustments “were made after thoroughly examining the behaviors’ harm to society and aim to adapt to new epidemic prevention and control situations,” the official China Daily newspaper’s website said in a statement. a report on the notice.
China is now facing rising cases and hospitalizations in major cities and bracing for further spread in less developed areas with the start of the Lunar New Year travel rush, which is expected to start in the coming days. . While international flights are still reduced, authorities say they expect domestic train and air journeys to double from the same period last year, bringing overall numbers back to those of the period. 2019 holidays before the pandemic hit.
The Department for Transport on Friday called on travelers to reduce travel and gatherings, especially if they involve the elderly, pregnant women, small children and people with underlying illnesses.
People using public transport are also advised to wear masks and pay close attention to their health and personal hygiene, Vice Minister Xu Chengguang told reporters at a press briefing.
Nevertheless, China is moving forward with a plan to end mandatory quarantines for people arriving from overseas from Sunday.
Beijing also plans to scrap the requirement for students in city schools to have a negative COVID-19 test to enter campus when classes resume Feb. 13 after the holidays. While schools will be allowed to move classes online in the event of further outbreaks, they must resume in-person instruction as soon as possible, the city’s education office said in a statement Friday.
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 potential emergence of new variants have prompted governments elsewhere to institute testing requirements. virus test 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 officials publish a daily tally of new cases, severe cases, and deaths, but these numbers only include officially confirmed cases and use a very narrow definition of COVID-related deaths.
Authorities say that since the government ended mandatory testing and allowed people with mild symptoms to test themselves and recover at home, it can no longer provide a full picture of the state of the latest epidemic.
On Saturday, the National Health Commission reported 10,681 new national 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 to 5 ​​267.
The figures are just a fraction of those announced by the United States, which has put its death toll at more than one million among some 101 million cases.
But they are also much smaller than the estimates published by some local governments. Zhejiang, a province on the east coast, said on Tuesday it was seeing around 1 million new cases a day.
China has said testing requirements imposed by foreign governments – most recently Germany and Sweden – are not based on science and have threatened unspecified countermeasures. Its spokespersons said the situation was under control and dismissed accusations of being unprepared to reopen.
Despite the claims, the Health Commission on Saturday put in place regulations for enhanced surveillance for viral mutations, including testing of urban sewage. The lengthy rules called for increased data collection from hospitals and local government health departments and intensified checks on “pneumonia of unknown causes”.
If a variant appears during an epidemic, it is detected by genetic sequencing of the virus.
Since the start of the pandemic, China has shared 4,144 sequences with GISAID, a global coronavirus data platform. This represents just 0.04% of the number of reported cases – a rate more than 100 times lower than in the United States and almost four times lower than in neighboring Mongolia.
Meanwhile, Hong Kong also plans to reopen some of its border crossing points with mainland China on Sunday and allow tens of thousands of people to cross each day without being quarantined.
The semi-autonomous city in southern China 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 risk, the reopening is expected to provide a much-needed boost to Hong Kong’s tourism and retail sectors.

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