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New Year's Eve sparks hope in China, censors target COVID online content

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WUHAN/BEIJING, Dec 31 (Reuters) – New Year’s Eve in China has sparked a flurry of online reflection, some of it critical, on the strict Covid-zero policy the country has adhered to for nearly three years and the impact of its abrupt reversal this month.

The sudden shift to living with the virus has sparked a wave of infections across the country, a further dip in economic activity and international concern, with Britain and France the latest countries to impose restrictions on travelers from China.

After three years of the pandemic, China acted this month to align with a world that has largely reopened to living with COVID, after unprecedented protests that became a de facto referendum against the zero COVID-0 policy championed by President Xi Jinping. .

The protests were the strongest display of public defiance in Xi’s decade-long presidency and coincided with dismal growth figures for China’s $17 trillion economy.

On Saturday, people in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, the epicenter of the pandemic, expressed hope that the new year would bring better luck.

Several people in Wuhan lamented how widely the virus has spread after all pandemic restrictions were lifted, with Chen Mei, 45, saying she only hopes that in 2023 her teenage daughter will be able to resume normal long-term classes.

“When she can’t go to school and can only take classes online, it’s definitely not an effective way to learn,” she said.

“Children don’t have such good self-discipline. And so for us adults, sometimes because of epidemic controls, we’re locked in the house. That definitely had an impact.”

Thousands of users on Weibo, similar to China’s Twitter, criticized the removal of a viral video made by local channel Netease News, which collected real-life stories from 2022 that captivated Chinese audiences.

Many of the stories included in the video, which until Saturday could not be seen or shared on domestic social media platforms, highlighted the difficulties faced by ordinary Chinese people as a result of the strict COVID policy.

Weibo and Netease did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

A Weibo hashtag about the video received nearly 4 million hits before disappearing from platforms around midday on Saturday. Social media users created new hashtags to keep the comments flowing.

“What a wicked world, you can only praise the fake, but you can’t show real life,” one user wrote, attaching a screenshot of a blank page that is displayed when searching for the hashtags.

The disappearance of the videos and hashtags, seen by many as an act of censorship, suggests that the Chinese government still views the narrative around treating the disease as a politically sensitive issue.

OVERLOADED HOSPITAL, FUNERAL HOMES

The wave of new infections has overwhelmed hospitals and funeral homes across the country, with lines of hearses outside crematoriums fueling public concern.

China, a country of 1.4 billion people, reported a new COVID death on Friday, the same as the day before — numbers that don’t match other countries’ experience after reopening.

UK-based health data firm Airfinity said on Thursday that around 9,000 people in China are likely dying every day from COVID. Cumulative deaths in China since Dec. 1 have likely reached 100,000, with infections totaling 18.6 million, it said.

At the central hospital in Wuhan, where former COVID whistleblower Li Wenliang worked and later died of the virus in early 2020, the number of patients dropped on Saturday compared with the rush in recent weeks, a worker wearing a protective suit outside the clinic hospital fever told Reuters.

“This wave is almost over,” said the worker.

A pharmacist whose shop is next to the hospital said most people in the city have now been infected and have recovered.

“It’s mostly seniors who are getting sick from this now,” he said. “They have underlying conditions and could have breathing problems, lung infections, or heart problems.”

NEW YEAR, NEW CHALLENGES

In the first indication of the impact on China’s mammoth manufacturing sector from the COVID policy shift, data on Saturday showed factory activity shrank for the third straight month in December and at the steepest pace in nearly three years.

In addition to the growing economic cost, the rise in infections after the lifting of restrictions has also raised international concern, particularly regarding the possibility of a new, stronger variant emerging from China.

Britain and France have become the latest countries to require travelers from China to provide negative COVID-19 tests. The United States, South Korea, India, Italy, Japan and Taiwan have imposed similar measures.

The World Health Organization on Friday once again urged China’s health authorities to regularly share specific, real-time information about the country’s COVID situation as it continues to assess the latest surge in infections.

China’s narrow criteria for identifying deaths caused by COVID-19 underestimate the true cost of the pandemic and could make it difficult to communicate the best ways for people to protect themselves, health experts have warned.

Reporting by Martin Quinn Pollard, Tingshu Wang and Xiaoyu Yin in Wuhan, Eduardo Baptista in Beijing; Written by Sumeet Chatterjee; Editing by Neil Fullick and Kim Coghill

Our Standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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