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Chinese censors scrub internet after senior party official gives speech on timeline of zero-Covid in Beijing

<i>Jade Gao/AFP/Getty Images</i><br/>Health workers take swab samples to be tested for Covid-19 at a makeshift testing site along a street in Beijing on May 11.
Jade Gao/AFP/Getty Images
Health workers take swab samples to be tested for Covid-19 at a makeshift testing site along a street in Beijing on May 11.

By Yong Xiong, Wayne Chang and Hannah Ritchie, CNN

Chinese censors scrambled to delete what appears to be a misleading quote by a senior Communist Party official published in state media Monday, which claimed the “zero-Covid” policy would remain in place in Beijing “for the next five years,” in an effort to tame an online backlash.

Beijing Daily, the official Communist Party newspaper for the Chinese capital, earlier reported that the city’s party chief, Cai Qi, said Monday that “for the next five years, Beijing will resolutely implement Covid-19 pandemic control measures and uphold the ‘zero-Covid’ policy to prevent imported cases from coming in and domestic cases from rebounding.”

The reported reference by Cai, who is a close ally of Chinese President Xi Jinping, to “the next five years” sparked a huge backlash on Chinese social media. In response, Beijing Daily removed the line, describing it as an “editing error” while leaving his other remarks about pandemic controls intact.

CNN reviewed the entire speech and while the published quote from Beijing Daily was misleading, Cai did discuss at length the possibility of keeping zero-Covid policies in place in the capital over the next five-year period.

The pandemic controls that would stay in place include routine PCR tests, strict entry rules, regular health checks in residential neighborhoods and public venues, as well as rigorous monitoring and testing for people entering and leaving Beijing, state media quoted Cai as saying.

“I have to rethink whether I should continue to stay in Beijing in the long term,” one user wrote on Weibo, China’s Twitter-like platform.

“For the next five years…what is the point of being alive even,” another user said.

Weibo has since banned the hashtag “for the next five years” from its platform.

In early May, Xi doubled down on the zero-Covid policy in a meeting of the Communist Party’s Politburo Standing Committee, the country’s top decision-making body, ordering officials and all sectors of society to adhere to the “decisions and plans” of the leadership.

US Ambassador to China Nicholas Burns said in an online Brookings Institution event on June 16 that he expected China to keep its zero-Covid policy in place until “the beginning months of 2023,” based on signals from the Chinese government.

For months, cities across China — including Beijing and Shanghai — have been placed under full or partial lockdown because of the strict zero-Covid policy, wreaking havoc on economic activity and hurting the job market. In May, the unemployment rate for people aged 16-24 hit a record high 18.4%.

China continues to shut down entire communities and cities over just a handful of Covid cases. All positive cases and close contacts are sent to government quarantine.

But there are signs that China is relaxing its quarantine policy for international arrivals.

On Tuesday, the National Health Commission announced that travelers arriving in China from overseas will now be subject to seven days of centralized quarantine, followed by three days of health monitoring at home — down from 14 days of centralized quarantine and seven days of home monitoring as required previously. The new quarantine standards will also be applied to close contacts of infected cases, the commission said.

China reported 23 locally transmitted Covid-19 cases nationwide on Sunday, with Beijing and Shanghai each recording four cases, according to the country’s National Health Commission.

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