Beijing isn’t in full lockdown, at least not yet.
But the new outbreak here has residents – and the Chinese Communist Party – worried.
Today the authorities confirmed another 21 locally transmitted cases of COVID-19 in the capital, bringing the total in the latest cluster to 158. And they are not confined just to Beijing – cases have been recorded in provinces across China.
The first question is how this happened. Life in China had been getting back to normal, with people going back to work and restaurants reopening.
But the country still had some of the strictest COVID-19 measures in place. Foreigners are still banned from entering the country, with some very limited exceptions.
Entry to apartment blocks and shops requires scanning a QR code on your phone, to harvest your location history. Masks and temperature checks are ubiquitous.
And yet here we are. Its exact origins remain a mystery, despite China’s claims that this is a European strain of the virus. China has sequenced the genome but – shock, horror – has not made it public, so it is impossible for the outside world to know.
In the meantime, the full might of the Chinese state has been brought to bear. More than 350,000 tests were carried out in four days.
Contacts have been traced extensively. Several residential compounds have been sealed off. And all schools have been shut, bars ordered to close and flights in and out of the capital curbed. “Wartime measures” as one local official put it.
The clear worry, for China but also for the rest of the world watching, is that this coronavirus ripple becomes a second wave.
But other countries have dealt with these ripples with much lighter intervention.
Since the start of May, South Korea – one of the success stories in managing COVID-19 – has seen three clusters, of 273 people, 147 people, and 139 people in different locations. They have reintroduced social distancing measures but have not responded with China’s iron fist. And so far, at least, there has been no second wave.
China is not prepared to take even the smallest of chances, though. There are two possible reasons for that.
First, the authorities always prioritise Beijing’s security above all, whatever disruption it brings to people’s lives.
Second, the number of cases might be far higher than published – Beijing might really be worried that this is the second wave.
The answer is probably a combination of the two. China is rightly anxious to protect its citizens and would rather overreact.
But this isn’t just about Chinese citizens, it’s about the Chinese Communist Party itself.
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The party has trumpeted its success in fighting COVID-19, especially compared to the mess some Western countries have made of it. And it has presented Chinese President Xi Jinping as central to that success.
As a result, that success must continue – whatever it takes.