BEIJING (AP) — China has suspended or closed the social media accounts of more than 1,000 critics of government policies on the COVID-19 outbreak as the country continues to open up.
Popular social media platform Sina Weibo said it fixed 12,854 violations, including attacks on experts, scientists and medical workers, and temporarily or permanently suspended 1,120 accounts.
The ruling Communist Party had largely relied on the medical community to justify its tough lockdowns, quarantine measures and mass testing, almost all of which it abruptly abandoned last month, leading to a surge in new cases that have stretched medical resources to the limit. The party does not allow direct criticism and sets strict limits on freedom of expression.
The company “will continue to step up 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 Thursday.
Criticism has largely focused on indefinite travel restrictions that have seen people confined to their homes for weeks, sometimes without adequate food or medical attention. Anger was also raised over the requirement that anyone who may have tested positive, or who had been in contact with such a person, be confined to a field hospital for observation, where overcrowding, poor nutrition and hygiene were often cited.
The social and economic costs eventually sparked rare street protests in Beijing and other cities, possibly influencing the party’s decision to quickly relax the strictest measures.
China is now facing a surge in cases and hospitalizations in major cities and is preparing for further spread to less-developed areas as the Lunar New Year travel rush begins. It should start in the coming days. While international flights are still reduced, authorities expect domestic rail and air travel to double from the same period last year, bringing the totals close to the 2019 holiday season before the pandemic hit.
The Department for Transport on Friday urged travelers to reduce travel and gatherings, particularly those affecting the elderly, pregnant women, young children and those with underlying medical conditions.
People using public transportation are also urged to wear masks and take extra care of their health and personal hygiene, Vice Minister Xu Chengguang told reporters at a briefing.
Nonetheless, China is pushing ahead with a plan to end mandatory quarantines for people arriving from abroad starting Sunday.
Beijing also plans to drop the requirement for students in city schools to have a negative COVID-19 test to enter campus when classes resume on February 13 after the holiday break. While schools are allowed to move classes online in the event of new outbreaks, they must return to in-person classes as soon as possible, the city’s education department said in a statement Friday.
However, the end of mass testing, a lack of basic data such as the number of deaths, infections and severe cases, and the possible emergence of new variants have prompted governments elsewhere to introduce virus testing requirements for travelers from China.
The World Health Organization has also expressed concern about the lack of data from China, while the US requires travelers from China to have a negative test result within 48 hours of departure.
Chinese health authorities release daily counts of new cases, severe cases and deaths, but these counts only include officially confirmed cases and use a very narrow definition of COVID-related deaths.
China said the testing requirements were not scientifically sound and threatened unspecified countermeasures. Spokesmen said the situation was under control and dismissed allegations of a lack of preparation for the reopening.
If a variant occurs during an outbreak, it is found by genetic sequencing of the virus.
Since the pandemic began, China has shared 4,144 sequences with GISAID, a global platform for coronavirus data. That’s just 0.04% 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 crossings with mainland China on Sunday, allowing tens of thousands of people to pass through daily without quarantine.
The semi-autonomous southern China city 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.