Beijing has closed schools and suspended weddings and funerals in the city of 22 million in a whirlwind effort to avoid plunging China’s capital into a Shanghai-style Covid lockdown.
Fears that Beijing could soon be in lockdown have already prompted widespread stockpiling, leading to shortages in some supermarkets.
The city’s Education Bureau ordered all city schools to end classes from Friday and said it had not determined when they would be able to resume.
Beijing has moved faster than other places in China to impose restrictions while case numbers remain low. Authorities announced only 50 new cases on Thursday, bringing the total in the latest wave of infections to about 150.
The government is desperate to avoid sweeping measures imposed on Shanghai over the past month, which have caused frustration about shortages of food and basic supplies. Across China, authorities have said they are cracking down on price gouging.
On Wednesday, the Ministry of Public Security said any individuals taking advantage of outbreaks to make a profit would be dealt with strictly, with fines of up to 3m yuan (£363,400).
In Shanghai, one man faced punishment for “fabricating and disseminating price increase information and disrupting market price orders”. He was accused of buying produce and reselling it online at prices increased by up to 360%. Another was accused of renting someone else’s business licence and selling produce and food online at inflated prices, making a $230,000 (£180,000) profit. Last month, Shanghai’s market supervision authorities said they had already issued about 20,000 warning letters over price gouging.
“People are in an area without the epidemic, and they came back to the vegetable market today. The price of eggs has gone up, and the price of meat has gone up, and the potatoes are still there, but their value has doubled,” said one Beijing resident on Weibo. “I didn’t panic, but this is urging me to panic.”
Authorities have ordered mass testing of more than 20 million people across Beijing this week. As well as city schools, restrictions were placed on some individual residential buildings, office blocks and a university and some public spaces and venues have been closed.
Analysts estimate that more than 340 million people in China are under full or partial lockdowns in 46 cities.
The southern manufacturing hub of Guangzhou cancelled hundreds of flights and ordered mass testing of about 5.6 million people after it detected one suspected case. Meanwhile, Shanghai reported its lowest daily case numbers in more than three weeks on Thursday, with 9,330 asymptomatic diagnoses. Authorities said they would make more resources available to improve vaccination rates among elderly people, but have not shown signs of lifting the lockdown.
The city’s 25 million residents have been in lockdown for weeks, with food shortages and delivery disruption. Among the complaints are accusations over the government’s insistence on supplying households with millions of doses of Lianhua Qingwen – a traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) being used as a Covid-19 treatment. Residents said delivery of the unrequested doses appeared to be prioritised over food.
TCM is backed by China’s central and local governments and is among the products Beijing has donated to other countries to combat Covid. However, Lianhua Qingwen has become controversial, with signs that criticism of it is not tolerated as authorities seek to contain dissent.
Wang Sicong, a well-known figure and son of one of China’s richest men, was banned from Weibo and his account shut down on Wednesday after apparently questioning the efficacy of Lianhua Qingwen. In a post to about 40 million followers, Wang had asked whether the product had been approved by the World Health Organization. In a since-deleted post he also reportedly urged China’s regulators to investigate the manufacturer, Shijiazhuang Yiling Pharmaceutical. After Wang’s post, shares in the company plummeted 35%, Bloomberg reported.
A notice on Wang’s suspended account said only that it had “violated related laws and regulations”. Yiling Pharmaceutical said it would take legal action against defamatory statements. On Wednesday, Wang’s account was deleted entirely.
Wang’s posts were among the most high-profile examples of growing discontent in China, as lockdowns and harsh zero-Covid measures continued, especially in Shanghai.
The WHO has examined TCM as a treatment, finding “promising data” that it helped reduce progression of the disease, Quartz reported. But Lianhua Qingwen is not recommended as a Covid-19 treatment, even in some places where TCM is widely used. Singapore has only approved it as a cold and flu treatment but is now running trials for Covid-19. It is banned from being imported to New Zealand, Sweden, the US and Australia.
Additional reporting by Xiaoqian Zhu and Chi Hui Lin. The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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