Beijing’s Partial Lockdown a Sign of the World’s New Normal

The Chinese economy had been firing back up. Travelers had been returning to fill trains and planes. Communist Party leaders had been celebrating their success in defeating the coronavirus.

For 56 days, Beijing had not registered any new locally acquired cases — until last week.

Now, China’s capital has suffered a flare-up of infections, delivering a painful lesson that the virus can come back to ambush countries that had triumphantly proclaimed victory.

After a fresh outbreak of coronavirus infections, the city of Beijing, with a population of more than 21 million, has begun reimposing some controls used across the country earlier in the year to stifle the first wave of infections.

Airlines have canceled hundreds of flights. Schools have called off classes, forcing students to exchange abrupt farewells. Officials sealed off neighborhoods, and residents stuck inside complained about limited food deliveries. Medical workers tested tens of thousands of residents.

Yet the digital departure screens showing the next 66 bullet trains indicated that not one had been canceled. Some travelers waiting in the hall were determined to leave before any further restrictions took effect.

“I’m worried that the city might be sealed off,” said Shi Ming, a 22-year-old student who had bought a train ticket to return to his hometown in Shandong Province, eastern China. “Last night was very tense, so I rushed to snap up a ticket.”

The flurry of new controls in Beijing came less than two weeks after the city government had lowered its emergency footing, seemingly confident that life could return to normal.

But Gao Fu, the director of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, suggested that the virus might have been in circulation for a month among vendors and workers at the Xinfadi market before cases were first reported in recent days.

  • Updated June 16, 2020

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In a meeting of officials in Shanghai on Tuesday, Dr. Gao explained that many of the latest cases were asymptomatic or mild infections, allowing the virus to spread undetected in the environment, according to Caixin, a Chinese magazine.

Across Beijing, most residents seemed reconciled to the prospect of weeks under newly tightened restrictions, after the government upgraded the health emergency to the second-highest level on Tuesday. State-run media outlets have repeatedly contrasted China’s aggressive campaign against the virus with the lapses of the United States, Britain and other Western countries where infections have surged.

The heaviest controls in the Chinese capital have fallen on neighborhoods around the Xinfadi market and two smaller markets where health investigators believe the coronavirus spread among vendors and workers, and then onto others. Nearly all the cases have been traced back to people at Xinfadi, or people who had close contact with them, and the chain of infections has spilled into other parts of China.

“Adults can get by, but what about children and old people?” said the comment, which was widely shared. “Couriers can’t get close, and friends and relatives outside can’t send in assistance either.”

The city government’s order to cancel classes has also worsened the anxiety of students preparing for the annual university entrance exams, searingly stressful even in normal times. To the ire of some parents, the government said it would not postpone the main examinations, scheduled for early July.

The government also has warned all residents to wear protective masks when outside, even in the hot mugginess that covers Beijing at this time of year.

“It’s very uncomfortable and a hassle,” said Wang Chen, a professional dancer in his 20s wearing a bright red mask. “But you have to hang on to your life.”

Amber Wang contributed research.

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