In Fighting a New Outbreak, China Tries to Focus Firepower

At an apartment complex in southern Beijing that is under lockdown, residents could not leave their homes in a gated cluster of low-rise brick buildings. Uniformed security guards and medical workers in protective gear watched the gate.

Around the corner in the Baizhifang neighborhood lay a different world. Shops were open. A supermarket was doing a brisk business. Residents came and went and seemed unfazed by a new coronavirus outbreak. “It should not be as serious as last time,” said Johnny Zhao, a resident who wore a white face mask as he walked toward the supermarket. “The government is very experienced now.”

As China tries to stifle the new outbreak in its capital city, it is applying something often alien to the instincts of the country’s rulers: restraint.

The brunt of the government’s measures has been borne by food traders at markets that were sealed off after cases were found, and by the residents of more than four dozen apartment complexes placed under lockdown. But in many other Beijing neighborhoods, the shops, restaurants and even hair salons are still operating. Traffic is a little lighter than usual, but plenty of cars are still on the road. City sidewalks remain busy.

Beijing’s leaders are trying to stamp out the latest outbreak, now at 183 infections after 25 more were announced on Friday morning. But they are not crushing the entire city, and its nascent economic revival, with heavy-handed restrictions.

The approach contrasts with China’s earlier efforts to contain the virus in the central province of Hubei and its capital city, Wuhan, where the epidemic broke out late last year. For over two months, the city of 11 million was under a tight lockdown that required support from tens of thousands of doctors, party officials and security personnel. The lockdown helped control the outbreak but also stalled the economy.

If successful, the new approach being taken in Beijing could be a bellwether for how China may handle future outbreaks, which many experts say are almost certain.

“You cannot expect people to accept the pain for too long,” said Yanzhong Huang, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations who has closely followed China’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. “Because then you have unemployment problems and even emotional stresses that could all have huge implications for social and political stability.”

It’s a dilemma that Chen Tao, a 34-year-old vegetable farmer in Beijing, knows too well. His business selling produce at the vast Xinfadi wholesale food market in the city’s southwest came to an abrupt halt a week ago when the government sealed off the site at the center of the new outbreak.

Earlier this week, he loaded chrysanthemum greens onto a motorized cart and parked it across the street from the market, which was sealed off by heavy steel crowd-control barriers at least seven feet tall. He waited, but with the authorities warning the public that the entire area was risky, practically no shoppers showed up.

“What can be done, what can I do?” he asked. “The vegetables have been growing in the field for a month, and I can’t let them rot in the field.”

China’s top leader, Xi Jinping, has not publicly discussed Beijing’s outbreak. But he had called repeatedly this spring for a “people’s war,” or all-out mobilization, to stamp out the coronavirus.

There are still traits of that in Beijing’s latest effort. School has been canceled across the city, frustrating senior high school students preparing for make-or-break university entrance exams next month. At least half the flights out of the city and essentially all of the buses to other provinces have been canceled. Fewer people are taking city buses and the subway.

At Tiantan Stadium in southern Beijing, an orderly stream of people arrived from all directions. They were met by teams of volunteers and health workers. Li Donghai, a 43-year-old home health care worker, said his employer had sent him there to get tested on Thursday.

Mr. Li said as he emerged from the stadium that he had made an appointment on his cellphone but still had to wait half an hour in line when he arrived. Everyone in the line was required to stay a meter apart, he said. Workers took a sample from his throat, he said, a procedure that took mere seconds, and he expected to get the results later by phone.

“I think the outbreak will end quickly because many people like me are getting tested,” he said.

The government has also dismissed two local officials and the general manager of the Xinfadi market, accusing them of acting too slowly and sloppily against the outbreak. Yet officials are also being told to restart economic activity — a potentially incompatible goal.

“That sends a signal to local officials,” Mr. Huang, of the Council on Foreign Relations, said. “Even if you were told to accelerate the reopening, still the top priority is keeping the
number at zero, and that can be mission impossible.”

In fighting epidemics, Chinese people have often accepted the government-imposed controls and monitoring that many in Western countries might resist. Still, the Chinese government, even with its fearsome array of authoritarian powers, may feel pressure to calibrate its response to outbreaks or risk exhausting public cooperation and stifling economic growth.

“With a war, you can fight it once and people go all out for it. But the second, third and fourth time, it drains people out, and its traction diminishes over time,” said Lynette Ong, a political scientist at the University of Toronto who studies China. “That is very much the risk. For subsequent waves, it has to be a more inclusive approach. It has already drained people.”

Such an approach might explain how residents in the Anhuali neighborhood in northern Beijing, on the other side of the city from the outbreak at the Xinfadi markets, said it was hard to tell that there was a coronavirus outbreak in the city at all.

“We are not worried, no one in our neighborhood is worried or scared, because it is in Xinfadi,” said Mu Xicheng, a retired construction worker. “We all wear masks because the government asks us to wear them — it’s good for us and also good for our country.”

Bin Wei, a middle-aged computer programmer, said that public reactions had been shaped by previous outbreaks of disease like SARS in 2003, which also hit Beijing hard, and the first wave of the coronavirus in January and February.

“We have experienced SARS and we also experienced the early outbreak,” he said. “This time, it’s OK.”

Amber Wang contributed research.

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