China’s capital adjusts to life with Covid after the policy reversal

The Chinese capital showed tentative signs of a return to normal on Thursday after a sudden reversal of a hardline pandemic policy that hammered the world’s second-biggest economy and ignited rare protests.

Beijing’s National Health Commission (NHC) on Wednesday announced a nationwide loosening of its zero-Covid restrictions, reducing the scope of mandatory testing, allowing some positive cases to quarantine at home, and ending large-scale lockdowns.

A major relaxation of President Xi Jinping’s flagship pandemic policy, the country’s top health body said the shift in tactics was intended to help the country “keep abreast of the changing times”.

In the capital, where a surge in cases had forced many to stay at home and kept businesses and schools shut, traffic was back to about half its usual intensity on Thursday, an AFP journalist said.

Under the new guidelines, the frequency and scope of PCR testing — long a tedious mainstay of life — have been reduced.

But while the number of testing stands around Beijing has decreased, those that remain are still busy, with many workplaces continuing to require negative tests.

“I’ve come for a test because someone in my office has tested positive. I hope I haven’t caught Covid,” 28-year-old Chen Min, wrapped in a down jacket, told AFP.

Others said they had come to be tested because they work in the hotel and catering industry, where testing remains obligatory.

Zhang Lan, a food delivery driver, said he needed to be tested because “it’s a request from the company” to avoid contaminating customers.

At a nearby shopping centre, businesses were open but crowds were sparse, with guards checking visitors’ health codes though no longer requiring negative Covid tests.

‘Very quiet’

“It’s very quiet. I think people are still afraid to go out,” the manager of a Starbucks said.

China is now steeling for a wave of infections expected to follow the relaxation of the rules — with one previous estimate suggesting more than a million people could die.

At one fever clinic in Beijing’s Chaoyang district, an AFP reporter saw lines that snaked around the block.

And in another part of the capital, AFP saw a steady stream of customers going into a local pharmacy for cold and fever medicine.

“But we’re out of stock of this type of medicine. We don’t even have any Vitamin C left,” Sun Qing, an employee, said.

She added that, over the past few days, people had been buying up the drugs in anticipation of a policy easing.

“Some of them unfortunately took much more than they needed. It could be enough for a year!” she exclaimed.


Saudi lays on lavish welcome as China’s Xi heralds ‘new era’ in relations

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman received President Xi Jinping on Thursday as the Chinese leader heralded “a new era” in Arab relations, with a lavish welcome signaling Riyadh’s interest in deepening ties with Beijing despite the United State’s wariness.

Members of the Saudi Royal Guard riding Arabian horses and carrying Chinese and Saudi flags escorted Xi’s car as it entered the royal palace in Riyadh, where Prince Mohammed — de facto ruler of the oil giant — greeted him with a warm smile.

It stood in stark contrast to the low-key welcome extended in July to US President Joe Biden, with whom ties have been strained by Saudi energy policy and the 2018 murder of Jamal Khashoggi that had overshadowed the awkward visit.

The US, warily watching China’s growing sway and with its ties to Riyadh at a nadir, said on Wednesday the visit was an example of Chinese attempts to exert influence around the world and would not change US policy towards the Middle East.

Prince Mohammed — with whom Biden bumped fists instead of shaking hands in July — has made a comeback on the world stage following the Khashoggi killing, which cast a pall over Saudi-US ties, and has been defiant in the face of US ire over oil supplies and pressure from Washington to help isolate Russia.

Setting the tone for Xi’s visit, his plane was escorted by Saudi air force jets as it entered Saudi airspace and a 21-gun salute was fired as senior Saudi royals met him at the airport on Wednesday, the Chinese foreign ministry said.

In an op-ed published in Saudi media, Xi said he was on a “pioneering trip” to “open a new era of China’s relations with the Arab world, the Arab countries of the Gulf and Saudi Arabia”.

China and Arab countries would “continue to hold high the banner of non-interference in internal affairs, firmly support each other in safeguarding sovereignty and territorial integrity”, he wrote.

Xi — due to meet with other Gulf oil producers and attend a wider gathering of Arab leaders on Friday — said these states were a “treasure trove of energy for the world economy […] and are fertile ground for the development of high-tech industries”.

Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states like the United Arab Emirates have said that they would not choose sides between global powers and were diversifying partners to serve national economic and security interests.

‘Trusted partner’

China, the world’s biggest energy consumer, is a major trade partner of Gulf states and bilateral ties have expanded as the region pushes economic diversification, raising US hackles about Chinese involvement in sensitive Gulf infrastructure.

The Saudi energy minister on Wednesday said Riyadh would remain a “trusted and reliable” energy partner for Beijing and that the two would boost cooperation in energy supply chains by establishing a regional centre in the kingdom for Chinese factories.

Chinese and Saudi firms also signed 34 deals for investment in green energy, information technology, cloud services, transport, construction and other sectors, state news agency SPA reported.

It gave no figures but had earlier said the two countries would seal initial agreements worth $30 billion.

Tang Tianbo, Middle East specialist at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations — a Chinese government-affiliated think tank — said the visit would result in further expansion of energy cooperation.

The “Belt and Road” initiative — Xi’s signature infrastructure investment project — dovetailed with Saudi plans to diversify its economy under its “Vision 2030”, Tianbo wrote in an article on Saudi-Chinese relations.

While Saudi Arabia was an important US ally, she noted, “In recent years, it has upheld its strategic autonomy, resisted the pressure of the United States”