Chinese leaders have reportedly delayed a key economic policy meeting amid growing signs that COVID-19 infections are surging nearly a week after Beijing jettisoned some of the world’s toughest restrictions.
President Xi Jinping and other Politburo members and senior government figures had been expected to attend the closed-door Central Economic Work Conference, most likely this week, to chart a policy course for the embattled Chinese economy in 2023.
A Bloomberg News report on Tuesday night, citing people familiar with the matter, said the meeting had been delayed and there was no timetable for rescheduling.
The delay comes as authorities continue to overturn the previously resolute “zero-COVID” policy championed by Xi.
Long queues are appearing outside fever clinics in a worrying sign that a wave of infections is building, even though official tallies of new cases have dropped in recent weeks as authorities reduce testing.
And companies in China, from e-commerce giant JD.com to cosmetics brand Sephora, are rushing to minimise the impact of surging infections – doling out test kits, encouraging more work from home and, in some cases, procuring truckloads of medicine.
The signs come as China attempts to swiftly align with a world that has largely reopened, following unprecedented protests last month in China three years into the pandemic.
The protests were the strongest show of public defiance during Xi’s decade-old presidency and come amid growth figures for China’s $17 trillion economy that were some of the worst in 50 years.
Despite rising infections, people in China cheered the withdrawal on Tuesday of a state-mandated app used to track whether they had travelled to COVID-stricken areas.
As authorities deactivated the “itinerary code” app at midnight on Monday, China’s four telecoms firms said they would delete users’ data associated with the app.
“Goodbye itinerary code, I hope to never see you again,” said a post on social media platform Weibo, where people cheered the demise of an app that critics feared could be used for mass surveillance.
“The hand that stretched out to exert power during the epidemic should now be pulled back,” wrote another user.
And in a further sign of policy easing, Chinese healthcare company 111.inc has started selling Pfizer’s Paxlovid for COVID-19 treatment in China via its app – medicine previously only available in some hospitals.
It sold out just over half an hour after the listing was reported by local media, according to the platform’s customer service.
For all the relief over last week’s decision to begin overturning the government’s zero-COVID policy, there are fears that China may now pay a price.
Infections are expected to rise further during the Chinese New Year holiday next month, when people travel across the country to be with their families, – a risk for a 1.4 billion population that lacks “herd immunity” and has relatively low vaccination rates among the elderly, according to some analysts.
The moves made last week to unwind the COVID curbs included dropping mandatory testing prior to many public activities and reining in quarantine.
Beijing’s envoy to the United States on Monday said he believes China’s COVID-19 measures will be further relaxed in the near future and international travel to the country will also become easier.
China has all but shut its borders to international travel since the pandemic first erupted in the central Chinese city of Wuhan in later 2019. International flights are still at a fraction of pre-pandemic levels and arrivals face eight days in quarantine.
Financial hub Hong Kong, which already has less stringent border controls than mainland China, on Tuesday said it would drop a requirement for incoming travellers to avoid bars and restaurants in the three days after arrival.
Hong Kong will also scrap its mobility-tracking app governing access to restaurants and venues such as gyms, clubs and salons, Chief Executive John Lee said.
While the lifting of controls is seen as brightening the prospects for global growth longer term, analysts say Chinese businesses will struggle in the weeks ahead, as a wave of infections creates staff shortages and makes consumers wary.
Analysts say the decline in reported new cases could reflect the dropping of testing requirements rather than the actual situation on the ground.
“The rapid surge of infections in big cities might be only the beginning of a massive wave of COVID infections,” said Ting Lu, Chief China Economist at Nomura.
“We reckon that the incoming migration around the Chinese New Year holiday in late January could bring about an unprecedented spread of COVID.”
Experts say China’s fragile healthcare system could be quickly overwhelmed if those fears are realised.
In Beijing, empty seats on commuter trains and deserted restaurants highlight some people’s caution.
“Maybe other people are afraid or are worried about kids’ and grandparents’ health. It’s a personal choice,” Gao Lin, a 33-year-old financier, told Reuters.
China stocks (.CSI300) edged lower on Tuesday as a recent rebound triggered by reopening hopes gave way to concerns about spreading infections. The yuan currency was little changed, but it is already set for its worst year since 1994, when China unified the official and market exchange rates.