China deletes COVID tracking app as reopening gathers pace
- Beijing drops key tools of ‘zero-COVID’ regime
- Changes follow historic protests last month
- Opening up sparks fears of infection spread
SHANGHAI/HONG KONG, Dec 13 (Reuters) – People in China celebrated the withdrawal on Tuesday of a state-mandated app used to track whether they had travelled to COVID-stricken areas, in the latest loosening of some of the world’s toughest anti-virus rules.
As authorities deactivated the ‘itinerary code’ app at midnight on Monday, China’s four telecoms firms said they would delete users’ data associated with the app.
“Goodbye itinerary code, I hope to never see you again,” said a post on social media platform Weibo, where netizens cheered the demise of an app that critics feared could be used for mass surveillance.
“The hand that stretched out to exert power during the epidemic should now be pulled back,” wrote another user.
For all the relief over last week’s decision to begin rowing back the government’s stringent ‘zero-COVID’ policy, there are fears that China may now pay a price for having possibly protected its 1.4 billion people too well against the virus.
The potential for a surge of infections during the Chinese New Year holiday next month, when people travel across the country to be with their families, remains a danger for a population that lacks “herd immunity” and has relatively low vaccination rates among the elderly, according to some analysts.
Itinerary codes were mainly used to track domestic travel within China, while authorities also use so-called health codes that residents must scan to enter public venues in order to check whether they may have been in contact with the virus.
The moves made last week to unwind the COVID curbs included dropping mandatory testing prior to many public activities and reining in quarantine.
Long queues outside fever clinics were a worrying sign that a wave of infections is building, even though official tallies of new cases have trended lower in recent weeks as authorities eased back on testing.
While China has not announced that the health codes will be scrapped, several cities including Shanghai have said that residents are no longer required to show these codes when entering places such as shops and restaurants.
This loosening of controls, three years into the pandemic, comes after historic protests against economically-damaging curbs that had been repeatedly championed by President Xi Jinping.
The demonstrations, which ranged from candle-lit vigils in Beijing to street clashes between angry residents and riot police in Guangzhou, were the biggest show of public discontent in mainland China since Xi came to power in 2012.
Beijing’s envoy to the United States on Monday said he believes China’s COVID-19 measures will be further relaxed in the near future and international travel to the country will also become easier.
China has all but shut its borders to international travel since the pandemic first erupted in the central Chinese city of Wuhan in later 2019. International flights are still at a fraction of pre-pandemic levels and arrivals face eight days in quarantine.
Financial hub Hong Kong, which already has less stringent border controls than mainland China, on Tuesday said it would drop a requirement for incoming travellers to avoid bars and restaurants in the first three days after their arrival.
Hong Kong will also scrap its mobility-tracking app governing access to restaurants and venues such as gyms, clubs and salons, Chief Executive John Lee said on Tuesday.
While the lifting of controls is seen as brightening the prospects for global growth longer term, analysts say Chinese businesses will struggle in the weeks ahead, as a wave of infections create staff shortages and make consumers wary.
Analysts say the decline in reported new cases could reflect the dropping of testing requirements rather than the actual situation on the ground.
“The rapid surge of infections in big cities might be only the beginning of a massive wave of COVID infections,” said Ting Lu, Chief China Economist at Nomura.
“We reckon that the incoming migration around the Chinese New Year holiday in late January could bring about an unprecedented spread of COVID.”
Experts say China’s fragile healthcare system could be quickly overwhelmed if those fears are realised.
In China’s capital Beijing, the line of people queuing outside a fever clinic at one hospital in the upmarket Chaoyang district stretched back 30 metres, according to a Reuters witness.
Empty seats on commuter trains and deserted restaurants in Beijing have underlined the hesitancy some people harbour about embracing new found freedoms.
“Maybe other people are afraid or are worried about kids’ and grandparents’ health conditions. It’s a personal choice,” Gao Lin, a 33-year-old financier, told Reuters on a sidewalk in the capital.
China stocks (.CSI300) edged lower on Tuesday as a recent rebound triggered by reopening hopes gave way to concerns about spreading infections. The yuan currency was little changed, but it is already set for its worst year since 1994, when China unified the official and market exchange rates.
Reporting by Bernard Orr in Beijing, Brenda Goh and Shen Yiming in Shanghai and Farah Master in Hong Kong; Writing by John Geddie; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore
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