BEIJING (AP) – After two years of separation from his wife in mainland China, Hong Kong resident Cheung Seng-bun made sure he was among the first to cross the border after crossing points reopened Sunday.
The ability of residents of the semi-autonomous southern Chinese city to cross is one of the most visible signs of China’s easing of border restrictions, with travelers arriving from abroad also no longer required to undergo quarantine.
“I’m rushing to get back to her,” Cheung, carrying a heavy suitcase, told The Associated Press as he prepared to cross at Lok Ma Chau station.
However, travelers crossing between Hong Kong and mainland China are still required to show a negative COVID-19 test taken within the past 48 hours – a measure China has protested when imposed by other countries.
Hong Kong has been hit hard by the virus, and land and sea border controls to the mainland have largely been closed for almost three years. Despite the risk of new infections, the reopening which will allow tens of thousands of people to cross each day is expected to provide a much-needed boost to Hong Kong’s tourism and retail trade.
However, China’s borders remain largely sealed, with only a fraction of the previous number of international flights arriving at major airports. That number is now expected to tick upwards, with Beijing’s main airport preparing to reopen arrivals halls that have been quiet for most of the past three years.
China is now facing an increase in cases and hospitalizations in major cities and is preparing for a further spread to less developed areas with the start of the Lunar New Year travel rush, which is set to begin in 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.
China has said the testing requirements imposed on its travelers by foreign governments – most recently Germany and Sweden – are not scientifically based and has threatened unspecified countermeasures.
Chinese health authorities publish a daily count of new cases, severe cases and deaths, but these numbers only include officially confirmed cases and use a very narrow definition of COVID-19-related deaths.
Authorities say that since the government ended mandatory testing and allowed people with mild symptoms to self-test and recuperate at home, it can no longer provide a full picture of the state of the latest outbreak.
Government spokesmen have said the situation is under control and reject accusations from the World Health Organization and others that it is not being open about the number of cases and deaths or providing other important information about the nature of the current outbreak that could lead to its emergence. of new varieties.
Despite such claims, the Health Commission on Saturday rolled out regulations for enhanced monitoring of viral mutations, including testing of urban wastewater. The lengthy rules required increased data collection from hospitals and local health departments and increased checks for “pneumonia of unknown causes”.
Criticism has largely focused on heavy-handed enforcement of regulations, including open-ended travel restrictions that saw people confined to their homes for weeks, sometimes sealed inside 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 Communist Party’s decision to quickly ease the strictest measures and reprioritize growth.
As part of the latest changes, China will also no longer prosecute people accused of violating border quarantine regulations, according to a statement issued by five government departments on Saturday.
Persons currently in custody will be released and seized assets returned, the notice said.
The Ministry of Transport on Friday asked travelers to reduce travel and gatherings, especially if they involve the elderly, pregnant women, young children and those with underlying conditions.
Associated Press reporters Raf Wober, Alice Fung and Karmen Li contributed to this report from Hong Kong.