China Locks Down Major Southern City of Chengdu

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China has locked down Chengdu, one of its biggest and economically important cities, as it turns once again to its Covid strategy of restricting people’s movements to stop outbreaks.

Starting at 6 p.m. on Thursday, residents in the city of more than 21 million were no longer allowed to leave their homes without special permission, in the most drastic move to stop an outbreak since Shanghai went into a damaging two-month lockdown in April. Authorities also began citywide mass testing that they said would continue through the weekend. Chengdu reported 157 cases on Wednesday and more than 700 cases since Aug. 25.

China is the last major country in the world to pursue a policy of eradicating the virus, and it uses citywide lockdowns and mass testing to root out pockets of outbreaks. But the approach is adding to the pressures facing the local authorities in Sichuan, the southern province whose capital is Chengdu. A record-setting drought and a punishing heat wave have devastated the region’s power supply, and emergency responders battled quick-moving wildfires around the city of Chongqing until late last week.

These troubles come as the ruling Communist Party is also dealing with an economic slowdown, caused largely by its so-called zero-Covid policy, at a politically sensitive time. The country’s top leader, Xi Jinping, is readying himself to take a third term in power next month.

Officials in Chengdu gave no indication of how long the lockdown might last, but it is expected to deal another economic blow to China at a challenging moment. The city is home to the manufacturing and assembly plants of several multinational automakers and technology firms including Intel, VW and Toyota, and its economic growth in 2021 accounted for 1.7 percent of China’s overall gross domestic product.

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China’s southwestern region had fared relatively well over nearly three years of the pandemic. But in recent weeks several places have fought to beat back new outbreaks, including the megacity of Chongqing. Millions of residents there waited for hours in the hot sun and extreme heat while officials carried out mass testing last week.

Chengdu and other cities across China have ordered measures like postponing the start of school and shutting down businesses to try to stamp out stubborn outbreaks in recent days.

The southern Chinese city of Shenzhen, which borders Hong Kong, tightened restrictions on millions of people, and closed down shops, entertainment clubs and swimming pools. Authorities shut down the world’s biggest electronics market in the city on Monday and suspended service on much of the city’s subway system.

China’s strict lockdown approach is also beginning to exact a social toll, too.

People turned to Chinese social media to vent about the news of the lockdown after officials in Chengdu denied rumors of one. In Shenzhen, Chengdu and Shanghai, parents of young children have complained online about onerous requirements that they provide daily nucleic acid tests results for students.

Images online showed some Chengdu residents trying to flee the city and others scrambling to prepare for the lockdown. Videos posted to Weibo, a popular social media platform, showed crowds of residents in outdoor markets and supermarkets, rushing to stock up on food.

Hong Kong reported 10,586 cases on Thursday, the most since an outbreak in the spring that led to some of the city’s toughest restrictions of the pandemic and that prompted an exodus of expatriates. Officials are now trying a more lenient approach, diverging from China’s broader pandemic strategy for the first time. They eased the required hotel quarantine for those returning from overseas twice this summer.

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