Antivirus shutdowns in China spread as infections escalated

BEIJING (AP) – Antivirus checks that have shut down some of China’s largest cities and led to public irritation are spreading as infections rise, damaging a weak economy and triggering warnings of possible global shock waves.

Shanghai is easing the rules that limited most of its 25 million people to their homes after complaining they had trouble getting food. But most of its stores are still closed. Access to Guangzhou, an industrial center with 19 million people near Hong Kong, was suspended this week. Other cities cut off access or close factories and schools.

Spring planting of Chinese farmers feeding 1.4 billion people could be disrupted, Nomura economists warned Thursday. It could increase demand for imported wheat and other foods, and push up already high global prices.

The closures are an embarrassment to the ruling Communist Party and a setback for the official efforts to support the declining growth of the world’s second largest economy. They come during a sensitive year in which President Xi Jinping is expected to try to break with tradition and assign himself a third five-year term as leader.

Beijing has promised to reduce the human and economic costs of its “zero-COVID” strategy, but Xi on Wednesday ruled out joining the United States and other governments dropping restrictions and trying to live with the virus.

“Prevention and control work can not be relaxed,” Xi said, according to the official Xinhua News Agency. “Perseverance is victory.”

The risk of China falling into recession is rising, Ting Lu, Jing Wang and Harrison Zhang of Nomura warned in a report.

“The logistics crisis is getting worse,” they said. “Markets should also be concerned about the delayed spring planting of cereals in China.”

The government reported 29,411 new cases on Thursday, all but 3,020 with no symptoms. Shanghai accounted for 95% of the total, or 27,719 cases. All but 2,573 had no symptoms.

A health official warned on Wednesday that Shanghai did not have the virus under control despite its lenient restrictions.

About 6.6 million people were allowed to leave their homes in areas where there were no new cases for at least a week. But at least 15 million others are still barred from going outdoors.

Most have obeyed despite the grumbling about lack of food, medicine and access to elderly relatives who need help. But videos on the popular Sina Weibo social media service show some trade ties with the police.

Grape Chen, a data analyst in Shanghai, said she was panicking about getting medicine for her father, who is recovering from a stroke. She called police after receiving no response from an official hotline, but was told that the quarantine rules prohibit officers from assisting.

“We are willing to cooperate with the country,” Chen said. “But we also hope our lives can be respected.”

The Suzhou City Government, a center for smartphone manufacturing and other high-tech industry west of Shanghai, asked its 18 million people to stay home whenever possible.

Taiyuan, a blue-collar city of 4 million in central China, suspended inter-city bus service, according to the official China News Service. Ningde in the southeast prevented residents from leaving.

A restaurant chef in Taiyuan said his family has been confined to their apartment complex since April 3, after cases were found in nearby areas.

“Our lives will be severely affected if the restrictions last a long time,” said the chef, who would only give his last name, Chen.

“My wife and I earn nothing,” Chen said. “We have three children to support.”

All but 13 of China’s 100 largest cities by economic production are under some form of restriction, according to Gavekal Dragonomics, a research firm.

“The intensity is rising,” Gavekal said in a report this week.

The amount of cargo handled by Shanghai Port, the world’s busiest, has fallen by 40%, according to an estimate by the EU Chamber of Commerce in China. Car manufacturers have suspended production due to disruptions in supplies of supplies.

Restrictions in areas producing the world’s smartphones, consumer electronics and other goods are causing forecasters to cut expectations for this year’s economic growth down to as low as 5%, a marked drop from last year’s 8.1% expansion.

The government party’s goal is 5.5 per cent. Growth fell to 4% from a year earlier in the last quarter of 2021, after tighter public debt controls triggered a collapse in home sales and construction, industries supporting millions of jobs.

Even before the recent shutdowns, the ruling party promised tax refunds and other aid to entrepreneurs who generate wealth and jobs.

Prime Minister Li Keqiang, the No. 2 leader and top economic official, this week called for “faster rollout” of aid to companies facing a “key time for survival,” China News Service reported.

Under a strategy called “dynamic clearing,” authorities are trying to use more targeted measures to isolate neighborhoods rather than entire cities with populations larger than some countries. But some local leaders are introducing more comprehensive controls.

Shanghai leaders were criticized for trying to minimize financial damage by ordering tests, but no shutdown once cases were found last month. A city-wide closure was ordered with only a few hours notice after the number of cases increased.

This was in contrast to Shenzhen, a technology and financial center with 17.5 million people near Hong Kong, which closed the city on March 13 after an eruption and ordered mass tests. It reopened a week later and business returned to normal.

Guangzhou has imitated Shenzhen. The majority of access to the city of 19 million was suspended on Monday, and mass tests were ordered after 27 infections were found.

Li Guanyu, a 31-year-old woman in Guangzhou, said residents can only leave her apartment complex once every other day to buy food, but the shops are well stocked.

“This happened a little suddenly,” Li said. “Perhaps the situation in Shanghai is so bad that Guangzhou started mass tests and shutdowns as soon as cases were discovered.”

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AP researchers Yu Bing in Beijing and Chen Si in Shanghai and video producer Olivia Zhang in Beijing contributed.

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