China retaliates against Covid curbs
Authorities suspend issuance of short-term visas for visitors from South Korea and Japan over ‘discriminatory entry restrictions’
Beijing — China began retaliating on Tuesday against South Korea and Japan, two of the countries that have imposed Covid-19 curbs on travellers from the last major economy to reopen its borders after three years of isolation.
China’s embassy in Seoul said it has suspended the issuance of short-term visas for visitors from South Korea. Japan’s Kyodo news agency reported that Beijing has imposed similar measures.
China reopened its borders on Sunday, removing the last major restriction that was part of a “zero-Covid” regime that it abruptly began dismantling in early December after historic protests against the curbs.
The frequent lockdowns, relentless testing and various other curbs since early 2020 have brought the world’s second-largest economy to one of its slowest growth rates in nearly half a century and caused widespread distress.
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 Organisation and are inconsistent with funeral homes reporting a surge in demand for their services.
The US, South Korea, France and other countries introduced testing requirements in response to China’s Covid outbreak. Some governments have raised concerns about Beijing’s transparency over the scale and impact of its outbreak, 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.
Though Beijing also demands negative Covid test results from anyone arriving in China, officials last week threatened retaliation against countries mandating tests for people coming from China.
China’s embassy in Seoul said on its official WeChat account it will adjust its latest visa rules subject to the lifting of South Korea’s “discriminatory entry restrictions”.
China has also told travel agencies that it has stopped issuing new visas in Japan, Kyodo said, quoting multiple travel industry sources.
China has dismissed criticism of 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.
State media on Tuesday continued to play down the severity of the outbreak.
An article in Health Times — a publication managed by People’s Daily, the Communist Party’s official newspaper — quoted several officials as saying infections have been declining in the capital Beijing and several provinces.
Kan Quan, director of the Office of the Henan Provincial Epidemic Prevention and Control, said the infection rate in the central province of 100-million people was nearly 90% on January 6.
Yin Yong, the acting mayor of Beijing, said the capital was also past its peak. Li Pan, deputy director of the Municipal Health Commission in the city of Chongqing said the peak there was reached on December 20.
In the province of Jiangsu, the peak was reached on December 22, while in Zheijiang province “the first wave of infections has passed smoothly,” officials said. Two cities in the southern Guangdong province, the country’s manufacturing heartland, reached their peaks before the end of the year.
Financial markets looked through the latest border curbs as mere inconvenience, with the yuan reaching an almost five-month high on Tuesday.
Though daily flights in and out of China are still a tenth of pre-Covid levels for now, businesses across Asia, including South Korean and Japanese shop owners, Thai tour bus operators and K-pop groups are licking their lips at the prospect of more Chinese tourists.
Spending abroad by Chinese shoppers was a market worth more than $250bn a year before the pandemic.
The retaliation against South Korea and Japan was not the only Covid conflict brewing in China. State media has also taken a swipe at Pfizer for the price for its Paxlovid treatment.
“It is not a secret that US capital forces have already accumulated quite a fortune from the world via selling vaccines and drugs, and the US government has been co-ordinating all along,” nationalist tabloid Global Times said in an editorial.
Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla said on Monday the company was in discussions with Chinese authorities about a price for Paxlovid, but not over licensing a generic version in China.
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