China quietly locks down area near Beijing with Olympics a week away

Around 1.2 million people in Xiong'an New Area -- a new economic zone 100 kilometres southwest of Beijing -- are no longer allowed to enter or leave their residential compounds.
Chinese President Xi Jinping tours the National Speed Skating Oval, a competition venue for the 2022 Winter Olympics, in Beijing, Tuesday, Jan. 4, 2022. (Representational hoto | AP)
Chinese President Xi Jinping tours the National Speed Skating Oval, a competition venue for the 2022 Winter Olympics, in Beijing, Tuesday, Jan. 4, 2022. (Representational hoto | AP)

BEIJING: Chinese authorities locked down an area neighbouring the capital city of Beijing this week following a handful of reported Covid cases, but made no public announcements about the fresh restrictions with just a week until the Winter Olympics.

Around 1.2 million people in Xiong'an New Area -- a new economic zone 100 kilometres southwest of Beijing -- are no longer allowed to enter or leave their residential compounds, local virus prevention staff confirmed to AFP on Friday.

While recent lockdowns in China are publicly announced and widely reported by state media, the Xiong'an restrictions appear to have been introduced by stealth with no public announcements -- sparking confusion among some residents of the area.

"We expect this (lockdown) to last around a week, but the exact timing is uncertain," said virus prevention staff in Xiong County, one of three counties in the area.

The restrictions kicked in on Tuesday, they added -- the same day authorities in another district noted five confirmed coronavirus infections had been discovered to date.

With the Winter Olympics beginning next week, Chinese authorities have scrambled to eradicate flare-ups in several major cities, including Beijing.

Cities such as Xi'an and Anyang have experienced hard lockdowns in recent weeks, with residents confined to their homes until multiple rounds of mass testing are completed and the outbreak suppressed.

Some users on China's Twitter-like Weibo were seen asking for further information about restrictions, while others questioned the extent of measures.

"Is there a need? Why can't we go home if the area is deemed low-risk? Don't make this one-size-fits-all," said a Weibo user this week.

Another said Thursday: "I don't think I'll be able to go home for the Lunar New Year."

While there have been a number of national-level "New Areas" across China, Xiong'an stands out with its location personally designated by President Xi Jinping, according to state media.

China, where the coronavirus first emerged, has upheld a strict "zero-Covid" strategy involving targeted lockdowns, tight border controls and mass testing.

Its case numbers are tiny in comparison to the rest of the world.

A month-long lockdown on the megacity of Xi'an was lifted earlier this week after a cluster that grew to more than 2,100 cases -- China's largest outbreak in months -- was largely stamped out.

But stubborn flare-ups have persisted, including in Beijing and the nearby port city of Tianjin.

China reported 39 domestic Covid cases on Friday.

The Winter Olympics will be held in a strict "closed loop" bubble that separates everyone involved in the Games from the wider Chinese population in a bid to reduce the risk of infections leaking out.

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