Beijing takes extreme measures after 79 coronavirus cases are diagnosed

Politics & Current Affairs

Children in the Chinese capital were supposed to return to school today, but after a handful of COVID-19 cases were found on June 11 and 12, those plans were canceled. The China Project reported last week on all the ways the city went back into lockdown after nearly two coronavirus-free months, as soon as just three people were diagnosed with COVID-19.

Mass COVID-19 testing underway at Guang'an Gymnasium in Xicheng District, Beijing, on June 15. Photo via China Daily.

Over the weekend, mass testing revealed dozens more infections, leading authorities to take more extreme measures to get a hold of the COVID-19 cluster before it turned into their worst fear: a second wave. The details, per the Wall Street Journal (paywall):

Beijing had recorded almost 80 new cases by Sunday, all locally transmitted and linked to Xinfadi, a sprawling meat and vegetable wholesale market in the southwestern district of Fengtai that supplies most of the city’s fruit and vegetables, officials said.

Thirty-six new cases had already been found in Beijing on Saturday, according to China’s National Health Commission. The all-time daily high for the city was preceded by the discovery of a first case on Wednesday, followed by two on Thursday and three on Friday, bringing the total size of the new cluster in the capital to 79… 

Fengtai officials unveiled what one called wartime-like measures, like those imposed around the country in the early days of the pandemic, at a press conference on Saturday. Those measures included travel restrictions, residential lockdowns and the mass mobilization of neighborhood-watchdog committees to conduct temperature checks and enforce quarantines.

“The safety and stability of the capital directly concerns the broader outlook for the party and the country,” General Secretary Xí Jìnpíng 习近平 had said in February, the New York Times notes (porous paywall). It is no surprise, then, that heads rolled when the virus breached Beijing’s defenses: “Two local officials and the general manager of the Xinfadi market were dismissed on Sunday for what the city leadership said was a failure to move quickly enough against the infections.” 

“City officials were testing 90,000 residents from neighborhoods around the Xinfadi market and another market suspected of a role in the infections,” the NYT adds. For more on the virus response in Beijing, see:

Unclear causes of the cluster

Though all the cases so far have been linked to the Xinfadi market in southwestern Beijing, we still do not know the root cause. Per the NYT:

As of Monday, however, experts still had not said how the virus arrived in the market. The city government said that traces of the virus turned up on surfaces in the market, including on cutting boards for salmon. The finding brought about unproven theories that the virus was carried on the salmon or workers who handled it, and supermarket chains in the city threw out their stocks of salmon, according to local news reports.

But Wu Zunyou, an investigator from the Chinese Center for Disease Control, said on a government website on Sunday that it would take more time and testing to pin down the source. Many of the first infections in Wuhan late last year were linked to a market that sold seafood and wild game, but officials have yet to say publicly how the virus spread in that market.

Nevertheless, “China has halted imports from European salmon suppliers amid fears they might be linked to a coronavirus outbreak at a Beijing market,” despite experts saying “the fish itself is unlikely to carry the disease,” Reuters reports

  • “Several Chinese provinces are stepping up inspections of fresh and frozen meat and seafood, including imported products,” another Reuters report adds. 
  • “Supermarkets across Beijing and further afield have emptied their shelves of salmon,” according to Caixin (paywall). 

A circuit breaker, a lawsuit, and a trial

Several other stories over the weekend indicate how strictly Beijing is taking the ongoing suppression of not just the coronavirus, but any information about the government’s handling of the virus that indicates it was anything other than totally timely, transparent, and effective

  1. A flight route from Guangzhou and Dhaka in Bangladesh has been suspended for four weeks after 17 positive COVID-19 tests aboard tripped a “circuit breaker” rule by the Civil Aviation Administration of China, the SCMP reports
  2. Zhang Hai, the son of a military veteran who died in Wuhan’s epidemic, is suing the government for what he believes is the wrongful death of his 76-year-old father, Zhang Lifa, The Telegraph reports. “If the government didn’t cover up the disease in the early stages, my father wouldn’t have died,” Zhang said. The lawyer for the case says “the court will probably give us a cold shoulder.” 
  3. Two activists, Chén Méi 陈玫 and Cài Wěi 蔡伟, who maintained a Github repository of censored articles about the early days of China’s COVID-19 response, have been formally arrested and are now being held at Beijing’s Chaoyang District Detention Centre to face trial, the SCMP reports. For context, read on The China Project: China tries to boost its COVID-19 containment reputation through censorship and diplomatic pressure.