BEIJING (AP) — China has suspended or shut down the social media accounts of more than 1,000 critics of government policies over the COVID-19 outbreak as the country pushes to open up further.
Popular social media platform Sina Weibo said it had addressed 12,854 breaches, including attacks on experts, scientists and medical professionals, and issued temporary or permanent bans on 1,120 accounts.
The ruling Communist Party has relied heavily on the medical community to justify its strict lockdowns, quarantine measures and mass testing, almost all of which it abruptly abandoned last month, leading to a surge in new cases that has exhausted medical resources to the limit. The party does not allow direct criticism and severely restricts freedom of speech.
The company “will continue to intensify the investigation and removal of all kinds of illegal content, and create a harmonious and friendly social environment for the majority of users,” Sina Weibo said in a statement on Thursday.
Criticism has largely focused on indefinite travel restrictions that have kept people confined to their homes for weeks, sometimes without adequate food or medical care. Anger was also vented over the requirement that anyone potentially testing positive or coming into contact with such a person should be locked up for observation in a field hospital, where overcrowding, poor food and hygiene were commonly cited.
The social and economic costs eventually sparked rare street protests in Beijing and other cities, possibly influencing the party’s decision to quickly relax the strictest measures.
China is currently facing a surge in cases and hospitalizations in major cities and is preparing to spread further to less developed areas as the Lunar New Year travel rush begins, move in the coming days. While international flights remain limited, authorities say they expect domestic rail and air travel to double over the same period last year, bringing the total closer to that of the 2019 holiday season before the outbreak of the pandemic.
The Ministry of Transport urged travelers on Friday to limit travel and gatherings, especially if they involve the elderly, pregnant women, young children and people with comorbidities.
People using public transport are also encouraged to wear masks and pay close attention to their health and personal hygiene, Vice Minister Xu Chengguang told reporters at a briefing.
Nevertheless, China is moving forward with a plan to end mandatory quarantines for those arriving from abroad starting Sunday.
Beijing also plans to drop the requirement that city school students test negative for COVID-19 before entering campus when classes resume on February 13 after the summer break. 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 education office said in a Friday statement.
However, the end of mass testing, the lack of basic data such as the number of deaths, infections and severe cases, and the potential emergence of new variants prompted the governments of other countries to establish virus testing requirements for travelers from China.
The World Health Organization has also expressed concern about the lack of data from China, while the US requires Chinese travelers to test negative within 48 hours before departure.
The Chinese health authorities publish the daily number of new cases, severe cases and deaths, but these numbers include only officially confirmed cases and use a very narrow definition of COVID-related deaths.
China said the testing requirements are not based on science and threatened unspecified countermeasures. Its spokesmen ensure that the situation is under control and reject accusations of a lack of preparation for reopening.
If a variant appears in an outbreak, it will be found by genetic sequencing of the virus.
Since the start of the pandemic, China has shared 4,144 sequences with GISAID, the global coronavirus data platform. This is only 0.04% of the reported number of cases – a rate more than 100 times lower than in the United States and almost four times lower than in neighboring Mongolia.
Meanwhile, Hong Kong also plans to reopen some border crossings with mainland China on Sunday and allow tens of thousands of people to cross each day without quarantine.
The semi-autonomous city in southern China has been hit hard by the virus, with its land and sea border crossings to the mainland largely closed for nearly three years. Despite the risks, reopening is expected to provide a much-needed boost to Hong Kong’s tourism and retail sectors.