China rings in the Lunar New Year with most of the COVID rules lifted

BEIJING (AP) – People across China rang in the Lunar New Year on Sunday with large family gatherings and crowds visiting temples after the government lifted its strict “zero COVID” policy, marking the biggest festive celebration since the pandemic began three years ago.

The Lunar New Year is the most important annual holiday in China. Each year is named after one of the 12 signs of the Chinese zodiac in a repeating cycle, with this year being the Year of the Rabbit. For the past three years, the celebration has been muted in the shadow of the pandemic.

With the easing of most of the COVID-19 restrictions, many people were finally able to make their first trip back to their hometowns to reunite with their families without worrying about the hassle of quarantine, potential shutdowns and suspension of travel. Larger public celebrations also returned for what is known as the Spring Festival in China, with the capital hosting thousands of cultural events – on a larger scale than a year ago.

The mass movement of people could cause the virus to spread in certain areas, said Wu Zunyou, chief epidemiologist at China’s Center for Disease Control. But a large-scale COVID-19 surge will be unlikely in the next two or three months because about 80% of the country’s 1.4 billion people have been infected during the latest wave, he wrote on social media platform Weibo on Saturday.

In Beijing, many worshipers held morning prayers at the Lama Temple, but the crowds appeared smaller compared to days before the pandemic. The Tibetan Buddhist site allows up to 60,000 visitors a day, citing security reasons, and requires an advance reservation.

In Taoranting Park, there was no sign of the usual busy New Year food stalls despite the walkways being decorated with traditional Chinese lanterns. A popular temple fair in Badachu Park will return this week, but similar events in Ditan Park and Longtan Lake Park have yet to return.

In Hong Kong, revelers flocked to the city’s largest Taoist temple, the Wong Tai Sin Temple, to burn the first incense sticks of the year. The site’s popular ritual was suspended for the past two years due to the pandemic.

Traditionally, large crowds gather before 11pm on Lunar New Year’s Eve, and everyone tries to be the first, or among the first, to put their incense sticks on the stand in front of the temple’s main hall. Worshipers believe that those who are among the first to place the incense sticks will have the greatest chance of having their prayers answered.

Local resident Freddie Ho, who visited the temple on Saturday night, was glad he could join the event in person.

“I hope to place the first incense stick and pray that the new year will bring world peace, that Hong Kong’s economy will prosper, and that the pandemic will go away from us and we can all live a normal life,” Ho said. “I think this is what everyone wants.”

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Associated Press researcher Henry Hou and video journalist Emily Wang in Beijing and video journalist Alice Fung in Hong Kong contributed to this report.

Find more of AP’s Asia-Pacific coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/asia-pacific

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