China suspends social media accounts of critics of COVID policies

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 moves to roll back strict anti-virus restrictions.

The popular social media platform Sina Weibo said it had addressed 12,854 violations, including attacks on experts, academics and medical workers, and issued temporary or permanent bans on 1,120 accounts.

The ruling Communist Party had relied heavily on the medical community to justify its harsh lockdowns, quarantine measures and mass testing, almost all of which it abruptly abandoned last month, prompting a spike in new cases that they have stretched medical resources to their limits. The party does not allow direct criticism and places strict limits on free speech.

The company will “continue to increase 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 dated Thursday.

Criticism has largely focused on the strict enforcement of the regulations, including unlimited travel restrictions that forced people to stay confined to their homes for weeks, sometimes locked up without proper food or medical care. Anger was also sparked by the requirement that anyone who potentially tested positive or had been in contact with such a person be confined for observation in a field hospital, where overcrowding, poor diet and hygiene were commonly cited.

Political cartoons about world leaders

Political Cartoons

The social and economic costs ultimately sparked rare street protests in Beijing and other cities, possibly influencing the party’s decision to quickly ease the stricter measures.

As part of the latest changes, China will no longer file criminal charges against people accused of violating border quarantine rules, according to a notice issued on Saturday by five government departments.

Those currently in custody will be released and the seized assets will be returned, according to the notice.

The adjustments “were made after comprehensively considering the harm of the behaviors to society and are aimed at adapting to new epidemic prevention and control situations,” the official website of the China Daily newspaper said in a report on the notice. .

China is now facing a surge in cases and hospitalizations in major cities and bracing for further spread in less developed areas. with the start of the Lunar New Year travel rush, ready to go live in the next few days. While international flights are still down, officials say they expect domestic rail and air travel to double over the same period last year, bringing the overall numbers closer to those of the 2019 holiday period before the pandemic hit. .

The Transport Ministry on Friday called on travelers to reduce travel and gatherings, particularly if they involve the elderly, pregnant women, young children and people with underlying conditions.

People using public transportation are also urged to wear masks and pay special attention to their health and personal hygiene, Vice Minister Xu Chengguang told reporters at a briefing.

Nonetheless, China is pressing ahead with a plan to end mandatory quarantines for people arriving from abroad starting Sunday.

Beijing also plans to remove the requirement that city school students have a negative COVID-19 test to enter campus when classes resume on February 13 after the holidays. While schools will be able to move classes online in the event of new outbreaks, they must return to in-person instruction as soon as possible, the city’s office of education said in a statement Friday.

The World Health Organization has also raised concerns about the lack of data from China, while the US requires a negative test result for travelers from China within 48 hours of departure.

Officials say that since the government ended mandatory testing and allowed people with mild symptoms to get tested and convalesce at home, they can no longer provide a complete picture of the status of the latest outbreak.

On Saturday, the National Health Commission reported 10,681 new domestic cases, bringing the total number of confirmed cases in the country to 482,057. Three new deaths were also reported during the previous 24 hours, bringing the total to 5,267.

The figures are a fraction of those announced by the US, which has estimated its death toll at more than 1 million out of some 101 million cases.

But they are also much smaller than the estimates published by some local governments. Zhejiang, a province on the east coast, said on Tuesday that it was seeing about 1 million new cases a day.

China has said that testing requirements imposed by foreign governments, most recently Germany and Sweden, have no scientific basis and has threatened unspecified countermeasures. Their spokesmen have said that the situation is under control and reject the accusations of lack of preparation for the reopening.

Despite such claims, the Health Commission on Saturday implemented regulations to strengthen monitoring for viral mutations, including testing of urban wastewater. The sweeping rules called for increased data collection from hospitals and local government health departments and intensified checks on “pneumonia of unknown causes.”

If a variant emerges in an outbreak, it is found through 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 its number of reported cases, a rate more than 100 times lower than the United States and nearly four times lower than neighboring Mongolia.

Meanwhile, Hong Kong also plans to reopen some of its border crossings with mainland China on Sunday and allow tens of thousands of people to cross every day without being quarantined.

The semi-autonomous city in southern China 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.

This story has been corrected to show that China’s latest case and death figures were released on Saturday instead of Sunday.

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