China Mayor apologizes for COVID-19 lockdown response

BEIJING — The mayor of a northeast Chinese city on the North Korean border, which has been under lockdown for more than 50 days, has slammed the failures in his government’s work amid widespread – but often veiled – dissatisfaction with the government’s heavy-handed approach to dealing with the pandemic sorry.

Dandong Mayor Hao Jianjun did not provide details but said government work and basic services had been “unsatisfactory,” for which he apologized, according to a city government statement late Monday.

It is highly unusual for a senior Communist Party official to publicly admit flaws, particularly in relation to the hard-line “zero-COVID” policy repeatedly advocated by top officials under President and Party leader Xi Jinping.

Although only a handful of cases have been reported, according to unconfirmed reports, Dandong had experienced one of the toughest lockdowns in China, banning even deliveries of groceries and other necessities.

In his reported comments at a meeting with residents, Hao acknowledged the sacrifices made by the city’s 2.4 million citizens, along with the “lamentations” among them about the government’s work. Dandong would now enter a period of pandemic control “more proactive, active and effective,” Hao said.

Unable to root out the source of new cases, Dandong officials resorted to increasingly extreme measures, some of questionable scientific merit. This included advising residents to close their windows to prevent the virus from being blown in from North Korea, even though its ability to spread through the air is extremely limited.

Authorities have also cracked down on smuggling across the Yalu River with North Korea, offering financial incentives for information on those involved. China has long believed the virus spreads through packaging and other surfaces, although there is little evidence it is a major factor.

Officials at one point also transported residents of an entire apartment block to quarantine in the city of Shenyang, about 250 kilometers (150 miles) north of Dandong. Upon their release, it was discovered that the positive case that sparked the move had occurred in a resident of a neighboring building, prompting an angry confrontation between residents and authorities.

Residents have been allowed to shop, but no word has yet been given on when normal work can resume, said Li Yueqing, the owner of a wood processing factory in Dandong, who was reached by phone. The rules still require that any building where a positive case is found be locked down, Li said.

“We understand that the epidemic situation in the city is still unstable. We don’t know when exactly we’ll be allowed to resume production,” he said.

A restaurant worker said the 50-day closure is severely impacting income.

“Up to now, we have not received any order from the government to resume business, and our income has been affected by doing nothing,” said the worker, who gave only her last name, Guo.

An employee at a maritime training academy, who gave only his last name, Zheng, said they remained closed as a precaution.

“The government thinks it would be better if we stayed closed longer given the many trainees we had. We have no idea when we will reopen,” Zheng said.

Protracted lockdowns have become the norm in China’s response to COVID-19, with Shanghai’s ongoing predicament gaining most notoriety. Most of the 25 million residents of China’s largest city and main financial hub have been confined to their homes or immediate neighborhoods for two months or more, and hundreds of thousands remain under restrictions.

The severity of the lockdown in Shanghai and the authorities’ apparent lack of preparation led to confrontations between residents and officials at checkpoints, and a series of late-night meetings that included pot-banging and shouting from balconies. Criticisms of government policies have been posted online, often in formats designed to thwart censorship software.

The easing of lockdown prompted an exodus from the city, and foreign business leaders say confidence in its future as an international business hub remains in question.

The response in the capital Beijing has been more nuanced, possibly for political reasons, although many students have been forced to take classes online and a major shopping and nightlife district has been closed after 166 cases linked to a nightclub were discovered.

Testing is required daily or every other day in most counties, and failure to attend can result in a cell phone’s health app being flagged and banned from public speaking.

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