China’s annual Golden Week festivities wind down Friday under the shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic with sharply reduced travel, frequent COVID testing and tight security in the capital ahead of this month’s 20th Communist Party Congress.
As in the past two years, authorities have sought to discourage the popular practice of traveling to one’s hometown or village during the period surrounding the country’s national day in early October. At least 24 provinces and cities issued announcements urging people to "spend the holidays locally," including Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou.
The advice has been followed by many Chinese, who prefer to stay close to home in order to avoid frequent COVID tests, ID checks and mandatory quarantines. Citizens were warned before the holiday to especially avoid 1,619 areas marked as "medium- or high-risk areas."
“If you leave Beijing, even if just to the nearby Tianjin or Hebei Province, your health app on the phone could send you a message when you return, reminding you there were positive cases in the places you’ve been,” said Allen, a 51-year-old information technology worker who lives in Beijing. “Then you’d have to be quarantined at home. Traveling means trouble."
Only 9.7 million people took to the nation’s railroads Oct. 1, the first day of the holiday, according to Shanghai’s Dragon TV. That compares to as many a 15 million rail passengers on the first day of pre-pandemic Golden Weeks. The Ministry of Transport had predicted that road traffic this week would drop by about 30% compared to the same period in 2021.
Many universities shortened the seven-day holiday season to three to five days, citing the risk of COVID.
The nation’s zero-COVID policy led to even more restrictions in a few locations. The government in northwestern Xinjiang stopped all passenger traffic out of the region on Tuesday. And in Xishuangbanna, a popular tourist destination in southern Yunnan province, residents and tourists were banned from leaving the city after a few positive cases were found.
Security measures further dampened the festive mood in Beijing, where 2,296 delegates will soon begin arriving for the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, which starts Oct. 16.
Authorities are determined to avoid any disruption of the event, where President Xi Jinping is expected to be re-elected to a historic third term as general secretary of the party. Police patrols have increased, and IDs are being checked more frequently.
Anti-COVID measures have been stepped up at airports at the request of the Beijing municipal government. Travelers from areas with confirmed COVID cases within the past seven days have not been allowed to enter the capital at all.
Visitors already in Beijing have been advised not to attend social events or enter crowded public places within seven days after arrival. They are also required to be tested twice within three days of their arrival.
Allen, the information technology worker, told VOA Mandarin the atmosphere in Beijing's neighborhoods always becomes tense ahead of major political events like the Communist Party Congress.
At such times, “community volunteers” with red armbands patrol residential neighborhoods looking for “suspicious people,” he said, and plainclothes public security officers are evident in large numbers in politically significant locations such as Tiananmen Square and the Great Hall of the People.
Ms. Huang, a 42-year-old Beijing resident who works in the cultural innovation industry, said many people have grown numb to the incessant COVID testing they must undergo.
“In Beijing we have to do a test almost every 72 hours. Sometimes I forget when I’m busy with work, but when I take a subway or bus, or go shopping, my health app reminds me it’s time to do it again. It is quite inconvenient,” she said in an interview.
“People are becoming used to it, but it doesn’t mean people support it. There’s just nothing they can do about it,” she said.
Wu Se-Chih, deputy secretary-general of Strategy and Public Institute in Taiwan, said in an interview he believes the Chinese authorities have found the anti-COVID measures provide them with convenient methods of social control that will outlive the pandemic.
“The so-called stability maintaining measure will only become more frequent before the 20th Party Congress,” he said. “I even think after the congress, especially in early next year before the National People’s Congress in March, we won’t see any of these measures loosened at all.”