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China has imposed its most widespread restrictions since the start of the coronavirus pandemic last year, placing travel restrictions on about 23m people and putting some areas into lockdown after a sudden rise in cases.
Beijing reported that China’s total symptomatic cases had exceeded 100 on Wednesday, the biggest outbreak since last July. Ninety of the new infections were in Hebei province, next to Beijing.
Residents of Shijiazhuang, Xingtai and Lanfang, three cities in the province, have been unable to leave since Tuesday. More than 10 local governments across the country, including in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangdong, have also asked residents to suspend all but essential travel.
Shijiazhuang started mass testing for Covid-19 on Tuesday for all residents for the second time this month. The first round of testing found 354 positive cases among 10m people.
Authorities want to limit the chances of spreading the virus during the lunar new year break next month. The seven-day national holiday is usually the world’s largest annual mass migration, when hundreds of millions of city workers return to their family homes in the provinces.
The new restrictions have been imposed ahead of a visit by a World Health Organization team, who will arrive in China on Thursday to investigate the origins of Covid-19 after a series of delays over visa approvals. Beijing has been keen to propagate the narrative that virus originated outside of China, despite the first mass outbreak occurring in Wuhan.
Local governments have not indicated punishments for those who contravene the rules, but state-owned enterprises and government agencies have implemented penalties for employees.
Two Beijing SOE employees told the Financial Times their pay would be docked if they left the city. Another said they had to write a note of self-criticism after leaving Beijing without telling their manager.
Several city governments and companies in the southern province of Guangdong are offering payments to residents to encourage them to stay.
The city government of Foshan said it would spend Rmb1m ($155,000) on subsidies for those who stayed behind even though they have families out of town.
The holiday is particularly important in China because of the prevalence of rural workers and young professionals living in cities, for whom it is the only annual opportunity to visit their parents or children.
Some out-of-town workers are resentful at the directive to stay put, saying it exposes the divides in Chinese society. Staying in the city over the holiday benefits those who have managed to buy houses and obtain coveted urban household registrations, known as hukou.
“Our managers say they will stay in Shenzhen for the new year, but in reality, many managers already have families here, they would stay here regardless,” said Suki Lin, a teacher in Shenzhen.
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“Those who are really impacted are people like us, the ‘Shenzhen floaters’, who rent their apartments, and whose family are back in their hometowns,” added Ms Lin.
Some government workers also complained of unequal treatment, since private companies have generally not enforced such severe punishments.
“What kind of impact can these controls have? Shenzhen is still a city dominated by private enterprises, and these enterprises mostly haven’t restricted their employees from leaving. We’re just a small group,” said Danny, a government worker in Shenzhen who did not want to give his full name.