BEIJING (AP) — After years of being separated from her husband in mainland China, Hong Kong resident Cheong Sengboon made sure to be among the first to arrive when border crossings reopened Sunday.
The ability of residents of the semi-autonomous southern Chinese city to cross the border is one of the most visible signs of China’s easing of border restrictions that were imposed nearly three years ago, so that travelers arriving from abroad no longer need to undergo time-consuming and expensive quarantines. They are not stuck. .
This comes even as the virus continues to spread in China amid what critics say is a lack of transparency from Beijing.
“I’m in a hurry to get back to him,” Chong, carrying a heavy suitcase, told The Associated Press as he prepared to pass through Lok Ma Chau station.
However, people transiting through Hong Kong and mainland China must still show a negative Covid-19 test taken in the past 48 hours – a measure China has protested when other countries implemented it.
Hong Kong has been hit hard by the virus, and its land and sea border checkpoints with the mainland have been closed for almost three years. Despite the risk of new infections, the reopening, which will allow tens of thousands of people who previously made online reservations to pass through each day, is expected to be a much-needed boost to Hong Kong’s tourism and retail sectors.
Hong Kong Chief Executive John Lee said during a visit to the station on Sunday morning that the two sides will continue to increase the number of crossings from the current seven points to a full 14.
“The goal is to return to normal life before the epidemic as quickly as possible,” Lee told reporters. “We want to bring the cooperation between the two sides back to the original path.”
The Communist Party newspaper Global Times quoted Tan Luming, a port official in Shenzhen, on the border with Hong Kong, as saying that about 200 passengers were expected to board the ferry to Hong Kong, while another 700 were due in the other direction. Travel first. Opening Day Tan said the number of passengers is expected to increase in the coming days.
“I stayed up all night and woke up at 4am because I’m so excited to go back to the mainland to see my 80-year-old mother,” said a Hong Kong woman, identified only by her surname Cheung, upon arrival. Shenzhen, where he was presented with “roses and health kits”.
Hong Kong media reports indicate that about 300,000 travel bookings have been made from the city to mainland China, with a daily quota of 60,000.
Limited ferry services were also established from China’s Fujian Province to Taiwan-controlled Kinmen Island off the coast of China.
The border crossing with Russia at Suifenhe in the remote northern province of Heilongjiang also resumed normal operations just in time for the opening of the ice festival in the capital Harbin, a major tourist attraction.
And in Royli, on the border with Myanmar, normal operations resumed after 1,012 days of full or partial shutdown in response to repeated outbreaks blamed in part on visitors from neighboring China.
So far, only a fraction of the previous number of international flights have arrived at major Chinese airports.
Beijing Capital International Airport was expecting eight flights from overseas on Sunday. Shanghai, China’s largest city, received its first international flight under the new policy at 6:30 a.m., with only a few more to follow.
As of March 2020, all international passenger flights to Beijing have been diverted to the first points of entry into China. Passengers must be quarantined for up to three weeks.
Hong Kong business traveler Ivan Tang said: “I was quarantined six times in different cities (in mainland China). “They were not easy experiences.”
Ming Guanghe, a Chinese living in Singapore, said it had been difficult to both book tickets and find a place to take the PCR test. Ming said quarantine measures and uncertainty about the outbreak have kept him away from home.
Shanghai announced it will resume issuing normal passports to Chinese for foreign travel and family visits, as well as visa extensions and renewals for foreigners. These restrictions have had a devastating effect on foreign businessmen and students in Asia’s key financial hub.
China is now facing an increase in cases and hospitalizations In big cities and with the start of its most important holiday, the Lunar New Year, it is poised to spread further in less developed areas in the coming days.
Officials say they expect domestic rail and air travel to double year-over-year, with totals close to the pre-pandemic 2019 holiday period.
Meanwhile, more foreign governments are imposing testing requirements on Chinese travelers — most recently Germany, Sweden and Portugal. On Saturday, German Foreign Minister Analena Baerbock urged citizens to avoid “unnecessary” trips to China, citing the rise in the number of coronavirus cases and China’s “overwhelming” health system.
German regulations also allow spot checks upon arrival. Germany, like other European countries, will test airplane sewage for potential new viruses. These measures will be implemented from midnight on Monday and are scheduled to continue until April 7.
China, apparently concerned about its reputation, says the testing requirements are not based on science and has threatened unspecified countermeasures.
Chinese health authorities publish daily numbers of new infections, severe cases and deaths, but those numbers include only officially confirmed cases and use a very narrow definition of COVID-19-related deaths.
The National Health Commission on Sunday reported 7,072 new confirmed cases of local transmission and two new deaths — even as provinces reported a million cases a day.
Officials say that since the government ended mandatory testing and allowed people with mild symptoms to get tested and recover at home, it can no longer provide a complete picture of the outbreak. China’s vulnerability is increased due to the general population’s lack of exposure to the virus and relatively low vaccination rates among the elderly.
Government spokesmen insist the situation is under control and reject accusations by the World Health Organization and others that they lack transparency about the outbreak, which could lead to the emergence of new strains.
The health commission on Saturday enacted regulations to monitor viral mutations, including testing municipal sewage. The laws called for increased data collection from hospitals and local government health departments and more investigations into “pneumonia of unknown cause”.
Criticism has largely focused on strict enforcement of the regulations, including endless travel restrictions that have left people locked inside their homes for weeks, sometimes without adequate food or medical care.
Anger was also vented over the requirement that anyone who might test positive or have been in contact with such a person be confined to a field hospital for observation, where overcrowding, poor food and sanitation are commonly cited.
The social and economic costs ultimately led to rare street protests in Beijing and other cities, likely influencing the Communist Party’s decision to quickly scale back the most severe measures.
Associated Press reporters Alice Fang and Carmen Li in Hong Kong, Frank Jordans in Berlin, Olivia Zhang, Wen Zhang and Henry Hu in Beijing contributed to this report.