Workers in protective suits stand near boxes outside a sealed off area following the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Beijing, China March 21, 2022.
Workers in protective suits stand near boxes outside a sealed off area following the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Beijing, China March 21, 2022. Reuters / CARLOS GARCIA RAWLINS

Beijing returned to work on Thursday after a five-day Labour Day holiday devoid of the usual trips across the country or lavish family dinners, as China's capital tried to eradicate a COVID outbreak of dozens of new cases a day.

The long break is usually one of the most lucrative times of the year for restaurants, hotels and other businesses in China. This year, travellers spent 43% less than in 2021, data showed on Thursday.

It was the latest sign of the pain caused by various degrees of COVID curbs imposed on dozens of major population centres across the country, including the strict city-wide lockdown the commercial hub of Shanghai has endured for more than a month.

Authorities in Beijing are determined to avoid having to go down a similar path.

The capital's streets were slightly less hectic than on a normal working day as officials encouraged people to work from home. The closure of scores of bus routes and more than 10% of subway stops has also complicated commuting.

Still, many trains looked crowded and office districts were busy. Many people took to bicycles to get around.

"Right now, I feel relatively safe at work and where I live, but I don't dare to run around outside because I still feel the outbreak hasn't reached its peak," said cook Liu Wentao.

Beijing was doing better two weeks into its outbreak than Shanghai did at that point, when daily cases were in the hundreds and rising. Some isolated lockdowns of residential buildings and the closure of gyms, restaurants and other venues remained in force, however - with residents desperately hoping such moves would suffice.

"Shanghai has fallen," Hu Xijin, former editor-in-chief of the state-backed nationalist tabloid Global Times, said on the Twitter-like Weibo on Thursday.

That meant Beijing had "a very important mission" to either find less costly ways of tackling its outbreak or "to tell the whole Chinese society the truth" that disruptive consequences cannot be avoided, he said.

"The former requires wisdom, the latter courage."


The uncompromising "zero-COVID" policy taken by China, where the virus was first identified in the central city of Wuhan in late 2019, increasingly contrasts with the attitude of the rest of the world which is trying to live with the disease. China's stance threatens its official growth target of around 5.5% this year and reverberations across the global economy and trade.

Global supply chains are heavily reliant on Chinese manufacturers, whose workers are often not allowed to leave their homes. Large international consumer brands have invested heavily in China in recent years to penetrate a market abundant in voracious spenders.

Once that shifts, the damage will be long lasting.

The European Chamber of Commerce in China said on Thursday EU firms were increasingly looking to move their investments to other markets.

Chinese markets have stabilised recently around two-year lows, but investor sentiment is increasingly running on hopes for policy support from the central bank and other regulators.

China argues its COVID policy is saving lives, which makes the heavy economic and psychological costs of the lockdowns worth it, though top officials have pledged to help businesses ride the storm.


A Shanghai official said on Thursday that authorities have found it difficult to strike the correct balance between curbing infections and allowing firms to resume operations.

"Some companies have reported ... that the standards for resuming work are somewhat high," said Zhang Hongtao, of the city's economy and information technology commission.

For the 25 million residents, most of whom are still under lockdown, there seemed to be a major difference between the guidance coming from the top and the enforcement on the ground.

Vice-Premier Sun Chunlan said in Shanghai on Sunday that communities with no new cases for seven days should be allowed to return to "normal social order".

Yet some such communities only allow one member of each household out for a few hours a day. Elsewhere, no one is allowed out even though the community's risk level has been officially downgraded.

In some districts, buildings are assigned stars according to when their last COVID cases were recorded, with the top rank of five stars indicating no new cases for at least two months.

On Thursday, a WeChat group of locked-down residents in a block of nearly 100 flats in the city's Changning district pinged with celebration at finally getting five stars.

"Great. Can I take the dog out for a walk?" one resident asked.

"I'm sorry, for the moment we are not allowed to take dogs for walks," the building's volunteer manager responded.