China’s two biggest cities tightened COVID-19 curbs on their residents on Monday, raising new frustration and even questions about the legality of its uncompromising battle with the virus.
As authorities wrestle with China’s worst COVID outbreaks since the epidemic began, authorities in its most populous city of Shanghai have launched a new push to end infections outside quarantine zones by late May, people familiar with the matter said.
While there has been no official announcement, over the weekend some residents in at least four of its 16 districts received notices saying they were no longer able to leave their homes or receive deliveries as part of the effort to drive community infections down to zero.
“Go home, go home!” a woman shouted through a megaphone at residents mingling below apartment towers at one of those compounds on Sunday.
Two residents in a fifth district, Yangpu, said they were notified of similar measures and that grocers in their neighbourhoods would be shutting as part of the effort.
Simmering public anger was inflamed by online accounts of authorities forcing neighbours of positive cases into centralised quarantine and demanding that they hand over the keys to their homes to be disinfected, which legal experts denounced as unlawful.
One video showed police picking a lock after a resident refused to open a door.
In another instance, a voice recording of a call circulated on the internet of a woman arguing with officials demanding to spray disinfectant in her home even though she had tested negative.
Professor Tong Zhiwei, who teaches law at the East China University of Political Science and Law, wrote in an essay widely circulated on social media on Sunday that such acts were illegal and should stop.
“Shanghai should set a good example for the whole country on how to carry out COVID prevention work in a scientific and legitimate way,” Tong wrote.
Such measures should only be taken under a state of emergency, he said in the essay, which he said more than 20 academics had provided input for.
Liu Dali, a lawyer from one of China’s largest law firms, wrote a similar letter to authorities.
Copies of both letters have been censored from the Chinese internet though users have reposted screenshots. Posts from Tong’s social media account on the Weibo site were blocked late on Sunday.
Liu and Tong did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
China is adamant that it will stick to its zero-COVID policy to fight a disease that first emerged in the city of Wuhan in late 2019, despite the mounting toll on its economy.
Authorities have warned against criticism of a policy they say is saving lives.
They point to much higher death tolls in other countries that have eased restrictions, or thrown them off altogether, in a bid to “live with COVID” even though infections are spreading.
“We must insist on regulating the flow and control of the movement of people,” the Shanghai municipal government said in response to Reuters questions on the latest curbs.
A “one-size-fits-all” approach should be avoided and each district was allowed to tighten measures according to its own situation, it said.
On Monday, Shanghai reported a drop in new cases for the 10th straight day.
In Beijing, residents of its worst-hit areas were told to work from home while more roads, compounds and parks were sealed off on Monday as the city of 22 million grappled with its worst outbreak since 2020.
More bus routes were suspended as more rounds of testing were conducted in a handful of districts, including Chaoyang and Fangshan, both of which were described by municipal authorities as the “priority of priorities” in the city’s counter-epidemic work.
Beijing reported on Monday 49 new locally transmitted cases for May 8, taking its tally of infections since April 22 to more than 760.
Beijing has been hoping to avoid the weeks of lockdowns that Shanghai has endured but the growing number of residential buildings under lockdown orders is unnerving residents.
“I just rented an apartment in this compound, and I didn’t receive any notice,” said a 28-year-old resident of Changping district in north Beijing surnamed Wang after being barred from leaving her compound on Monday.
“I’ve already been working from home but I’m worried I might run out of daily supplies.”
Residents received a notice later on Monday morning that positive cases had been detected in the area.
A nanny living in the same compound said the lockdown meant she was not able to get to a new job.
“Today is the first day of the job and now I can’t go out,” said the 40-year-old, who gave her name as Meizi.