February 8, 2023

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Travelers are rushing to take advantage of China’s reopening

BEIJING (AP) — After years of separation from his wife in mainland China, Hong Kong resident Cheung Sing-pun made sure he was among the first in line after border crossings reopened Sunday.

The ability of residents of the semi-autonomous southern Chinese city to cross is one of the most visible signs of China’s easing of border restrictions imposed nearly three years ago, as travelers arriving from abroad are no longer required to undergo expensive and time-consuming quarantine. .

It comes even as the virus continues to spread in China amid what critics say is Beijing’s lack of transparency.

“I’m hurrying back to it,” Cheung, carrying a heavy suitcase, told the Associated Press as he prepared to cross at Loc Ma Chau station, which was packed with eager travelers.

However, those crossing between Hong Kong and mainland China must still show a negative COVID-19 test taken within the past 48 hours – a measure China protested when other countries imposed it.

Hong Kong has been hit hard by the virus, and land and sea border checkpoints with the mainland have been largely closed for nearly three years. Despite the risk of new infections, the reopening that will allow tens of thousands of people who made advance online reservations to cross each day is expected to provide a much-needed boost to Hong Kong’s tourism and retail sectors.

On a visit to the station Sunday morning, Hong Kong Chief Executive John Lee said the two sides will continue to increase the number of crossing points from the current seven to a full 14.

“The aim is to return as quickly as possible to normal life before the epidemic,” Li told reporters. “We want to put the cooperation between the two sides back on track.”

About 200 passengers are expected to take the ferry to Hong Kong, while another 700 are scheduled to travel the other way, on the first, the Communist Party newspaper Global Times quoted Tan Luming, a port official in Shenzhen on the border with Hong Kong, as saying. reopening day. Tan said a steady increase in passenger numbers is expected in the coming days.

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A Hong Kong woman identified only by her last name, Cheung, said upon her arrival in Shenzhen, where she was gifted with “flowers and sanitary ware,” the newspaper said.

According to media reports in Hong Kong, about 300,000 travel reservations have already been made from the city to mainland China, with a daily quota of 60,000.

Limited ferry service from China’s Fujian Province to Taiwan-controlled Kinmen Island off the Chinese coast has also been restored.

The border crossing with Russia at Suifenhe in the remote northern province of Heilongjiang has also resumed normal operations, just in time for the opening of the Ice Festival in the capital, Harbin, a major tourist attraction.

And in Ruili, on the border with Myanmar, normal operations have resumed after 1,012 days of full or partial lockdown in response to repeated outbreaks blamed in part on visitors from neighboring China.

So far, only a fraction of the previous number of international flights arrive at major Chinese airports.

Beijing’s main capital international airport was expecting eight flights from abroad on Sunday. China’s largest city, Shanghai, received its first international flight under the new policy at 6:30 am and only a handful of other cities followed suit.

Since March 2020, all international passenger flights to Beijing have been diverted to designated first entry points into China. Passengers have been asked to self-quarantine for up to three weeks.

“I have been quarantined six times in different cities (in mainland China),” said Evan Tang, a business traveler from Hong Kong. “It wasn’t an easy experience.”

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Meng Guangye, a Chinese living in Singapore, said it was difficult to book a ticket and find a place to take a PCR test. Quarantine measures and uncertainty about the outbreak kept him away from home, Ming said.

Shanghai announced that it will again start issuing regular passports to Chinese for foreign travel and family visits, as well as renewing and extending visas for foreigners. These restrictions have had a particularly devastating effect on foreign businessmen and students in the major Asian financial hub.

China is now facing an increase in the number of cases and hospitalizations In major cities and is preparing for further spread in less developed regions with the start of its most important holiday, the Lunar New Year, in the coming days.

Authorities say they expect domestic rail and air travel to double over the same period last year, bringing overall numbers close to those in the pre-pandemic 2019 holiday period.

Meanwhile, more foreign governments are imposing testing requirements on travelers from China – most recently Germany, Sweden and Portugal. German Foreign Minister Analina Berbock on Saturday urged citizens to avoid “non-essential” travel to China, citing rising coronavirus cases and China’s “overburdened” health system.

The German regulation also allows spot checks on arrival. Germany, like other European countries, will test sewage from airplanes for possible new virus variants. The measures go into effect at midnight Monday, and are set to last until April 7.

Apparently concerned about its reputation, China says the testing requirements are not based on science and has threatened unspecified countermeasures.

Chinese health authorities publish a daily tally of new infections, severe cases, and deaths, but these figures include only officially confirmed cases and use a very narrow definition of COVID-19-related deaths.

On Sunday, the National Health Commission reported 7,072 new confirmed cases of local transmission and two new deaths – even as individual provinces are reporting up to 1 million cases per day.

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Authorities say that since the government ended compulsory testing and allowed people with mild symptoms to test themselves and recover at home, they can no longer provide a complete picture of the outbreak. China’s vulnerabilities are increasing due to a general lack of population exposure to the virus and a relatively low vaccination rate among the elderly.

Government spokespeople insist the situation is under control and reject accusations from the World Health Organization and others that they are not transparent about the outbreak, which could lead to the emergence of new variants.

On Saturday, the Health Commission issued regulations to strengthen surveillance of viral mutations, including urban sewage testing. The rules called for increased data collection from hospitals and local government health departments and extensive testing for “pneumonia of unknown cause”.

Criticism has largely focused on the harsh enforcement of the regulations, including open-ended travel restrictions that have left people confined to their homes for weeks, sometimes locked indoors without adequate food or medical care.

Anger was also vented over the requirement that anyone who potentially tested positive or had contact with such a person be held for observation in a field hospital, where overcrowding and poor food and hygiene are commonly cited.

The social and economic costs eventually led to rare street protests in Beijing and other cities, which may influence the Communist Party’s decision to quickly ease the tougher measures.

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Associated Press journalists Alice Fung and Carmen Li in Hong Kong, Frank Jordan in Berlin, and Olivia Zhang, Wayne Zhang and Henry Hu in Beijing contributed to this report.