China suspends social media accounts of critics of COVID policy

China suspends social media accounts of critics of COVID policy

BEIJING (AP) – China has suspended or closed the social media accounts of more than 1,000 critics of its government’s policies on the COVID-19 outbreak, as the country moves to open up further.

The popular Sina Weibo social media platform said it had addressed 12,854 violations, including attacks on experts, scholars and medical workers, and issued temporary or permanent bans on 1,120 accounts.

The ruling Communist Party had relied heavily on the medical community to justify its harsh lockdowns, quarantine measures and mass testing, almost all of which it abruptly abandoned last month, leading to a surge in new cases that has stretched medical resources to their limits. The party does not allow any direct criticism and places strict limits on freedom of expression.

The company “will continue to increase the investigation and cleanup of all types of illegal content, and create a harmonious and friendly community environment for the majority of users,” Sina Weibo said in a statement dated Thursday.

Criticism has largely focused on open-ended travel restrictions that left people confined to their homes for weeks, sometimes without adequate food or medical care. Anger was also sparked over the requirement that anyone who potentially tested positive or had been in contact with such a person be held for observation at a field hospital, where overcrowding, poor food and hygiene were often cited.

The social and economic costs eventually led to rare street protests in Beijing and other cities, possibly influencing the party’s decision to quickly ease the strictest measures.

China is now facing a surge in cases and hospitalizations in major cities, and is bracing for a further spread to less developed areas with the start of the Lunar New Year travel rush, set in motion over the coming days. While international flights remain down, authorities say they expect domestic train and air travel to double from the same period last year, bringing the total numbers close to the 2019 holiday season before the pandemic hit.

The Ministry of Transport on Friday asked travelers to reduce journeys and gatherings, especially if they involve elderly people, pregnant women, young children and those with underlying conditions.

People using public transport are also encouraged to wear masks and pay special attention to health and personal hygiene, Vice Minister Xu Chengguang told reporters at a briefing.

Nevertheless, China is moving ahead with a plan to end mandatory quarantines for people arriving from abroad starting Sunday.

Beijing also plans to drop a requirement for students at city schools to have a negative COVID-19 test to enter campus when classes resume on February 13 after the holiday break. While schools will be allowed to move classes online in case of new outbreaks, they must return to in-person instruction as soon as possible, the city’s education agency said in a statement Friday.

But an end to mass testing, a lack of basic data such as the number of deaths, infections and severe cases, and the potential emergence of new variants has called on governments elsewhere to introduce virus testing requirements for travelers from China.

The World Health Organization has also expressed concern about the lack of data from China, while the United States requires a negative test result for travelers from China within 48 hours of departure.

Chinese health authorities publish a daily count 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 has said the testing requirements are not scientifically based and has threatened unspecified countermeasures. Its spokespeople have said the situation is under control, rejecting accusations of a lack of preparation for reopening.

If a variant appears in an outbreak, it is found through genetic sequencing of the virus.

Since the start of the pandemic, China has shared 4,144 sequences with GISAID, a global platform for coronavirus data. That’s just 0.04% of the reported number of cases — a rate more than 100 times less than the United States and nearly four times less than neighboring Mongolia.

Meanwhile, Hong Kong also plans to reopen some of its border crossings with mainland China on Sunday, allowing tens of thousands of people to cross each day without being quarantined.

The semi-autonomous southern Chinese city has been hit hard by the virus, and its land and sea border checkpoints to the mainland have been largely closed for nearly three years. Despite the risks, the reopening is expected to provide a much-needed boost to Hong Kong’s tourism and retail sectors.

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