Beijing retaliated on Tuesday against South Korea’s COVID-19 curbs on travellers from China, while state media further downplayed the severity of the outbreak in the last major economy to reopen its borders after three years of isolation.
China ditched mandatory quarantines for arrivals and allowed travel to resume across its border with Hong Kong on Sunday, removing the last major restrictions under the “zero-COVID” regime which it abruptly began dismantling in early December after historic protests against the curbs.
But the virus is spreading unchecked among its 1.4 billion people and worries over the scale and impact of its outbreak have prompted South Korea, the United States and other countries to require negative COVID tests from travellers from China.
Although China imposes similar testing requirements for all arrivals, foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin told reporters on Tuesday the entry curbs for Chinese travellers were “discriminatory.”
“We will take reciprocal measures,” Wang said, without elaborating.
The Chinese embassy in South Korea has suspended issuing short-term visas for South Korean visitors, it said on Tuesday, the first retaliatory move against nations imposing COVID-19 curbs on travellers from China.
The embassy will adjust the policy subject to the lifting of South Korea’s “discriminatory entry restrictions” against China, it said on its official WeChat account.
Kyodo news agency, quoting multiple travel industry sources, said China has told travel agencies that it has stopped issuing new visas in Japan. An AFP journalist tweeted that the Chinese embassy in Japan released a statement confirming the curbs on Tuesday but removed it from its website within minutes.
With the virus let loose, China has stopped publishing daily infection tallies. It has been reporting five or fewer deaths a day since the policy U-turn, figures that have been disputed by the World Health Organization and are inconsistent with funeral reporting surging demand.
Some governments have raised concerns about Beijing’s data transparency as international experts predict at least 1 million deaths in China this year. Washington has also raised concerns about future potential mutations of the virus.
China dismisses criticism over its data as politically-motivated attempts to smear its “success” in handling the pandemic and said any future mutations are likely to be more infectious but less harmful.
“Since the outbreak, China has had an open and transparent attitude,” the foreign ministry’s Wang said.
State media downplayed the severity of the outbreak.
An article in Health Times, a publication managed by People’s Daily, the ruling Communist Party’s official newspaper, quoted several officials as saying infections have been declining in the capital Beijing and several Chinese provinces.
Kan Quan, director of the Office of the Henan Provincial Epidemic Prevention and Control, said nearly 90% of people in the central province of 100 million people had been infected as of Jan. 6.
Beijing acting mayor Yin Yong said the capital was also past its peak. Li Pan, from the Municipal Health Commission in the city of Chongqing, said the peak there was reached on Dec. 20.
In the eastern province of Jiangsu, the peak was reached on Dec. 22, while in neighbouring Zheijiang province “the first wave of infections has passed smoothly,” officials said.
Financial markets looked through the latest border curbs as mere inconvenience, with the yuan hitting a nearly five-month high.
Although daily flights in and out of China are still at a tenth of pre-COVID levels, businesses across Asia, from South Korean and Japanese shop owners to Thai tour bus operators and K-pop groups celebrated the prospect of more Chinese tourists.
Chinese shoppers spent $250 billion a year overseas before COVID.
The border rules were not the only COVID conflict brewing in China.
State media lashed out at Pfizer Inc (PFE.N) over the price for its COVID treatment Paxlovid.
“It is not a secret that U.S. capital forces have already accumulated quite a fortune from the world via selling vaccines and drugs, and the U.S. government has been coordinating all along,” nationalist tabloid Global Times said in an editorial.
China’s abrupt change of course in COVID policies has caught many hospitals ill-equipped, while smaller cities were left scrambling to secure basic anti-fever drugs.
Yu Weishi, chairman of Youcare Pharmaceutical Group, told Reuters his firm boosted output of its anti-fever drugs five-fold to one million boxes a day in the past month.
Wang Lili, general manager at another pharmaceutical firm, CR Double Crane (600062.SS), told Reuters that intravenous drips were their most in-demand product.
“We are running 24/7,” Wang said.