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Beijing conducts mass COVID-19 testing as increased cases may force a lockdown

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Let's turn now to China and its battle against COVID. Beijing has started mass testing 20 million residents to try to contain a new omicron outbreak. The new measures triggered fears that the capital will be locked down like China's biggest city, Shanghai. With us now by way of Skype is the Beijing bureau chief for The Economist, David Rennie.

Hi, David.

DAVID RENNIE: Good morning.

FADEL: So as this mass testing program gets underway, what's the mood in Beijing right now?

RENNIE: I think if you're a government official, you are extremely concerned because this is not just a very big city; it's the capital. It's where the big bosses live. And they have done everything for the last two years to keep COVID out of Beijing. We have uniquely strict rules here. And China did an extraordinary job for two years of keeping COVID levels kind of incredibly low. It involved incredibly tough controls. But Shanghai has just been hit by a massive wave of the omicron variant. We currently have tens of millions of Chinese in cities around China more or less locked down. And now omicron is beating at the gates of Beijing.

So if you're an official, you're looking at the numbers. They're still very low. We had about 46 new cases today in a city of 22 million. So by American standards, that's incredible. But if you're an official, you know that the political and the public health crisis of omicron hitting Beijing is just vast. The population actually out on the streets - talking to regular Beijingers - they're kind of weirdly confident that they live in the most important city. They live in the same city as the big Communist Party leaders. And so they'll be fine. They won't let omicron come in to Beijing. Now, whether that confidence is justified, we will find out.

FADEL: But let's talk about those strict measures because we've seen these scenes out of Shanghai of people shouting at workers, erecting barriers, some even kicking down barriers. Could we see those same strict lockdowns in Beijing and scenes like that?

RENNIE: Sure. I mean, I think that the leadership in Beijing has only unpopular choices ahead of it. It can either have the embarrassment of erecting fences, locking people into buildings, like you've seen in Shanghai, or it can play it calm for now. And that risks COVID getting hold here, and then it really takes off, and you have, you know, very, very large lockdowns. So they only have unpalatable choices. Right now, because Beijing is such a privileged, special city, we're seeing them try something different from anywhere else in China. We've got these kind of ultraprecision lockdowns. We've got, I think...

FADEL: OK.

RENNIE: ...21 areas that are locked down very tightly. But the rest of the city is weirdly normal but kind of a bit tense.

FADEL: So how is Beijing going to go about testing 21 million people?

RENNIE: They got this down to a fine art. I mean, I've had, like, dozens and dozens of tests to just move around. I've had two tests this week. It was free. It took about 5 minutes. These are PCR tests - you know, the proper swab down the throats.

FADEL: Right.

RENNIE: Then they take you - you know, it's all linked through your smartphone, which is an ID in this country. Every time you move around the city - any building, any cab you go into, you have to scan a code so your movements are tracked. I mean, the degree of privacy that we've kind of got used to kind of losing here...

FADEL: Yeah.

RENNIE: ...I think, would boggle the mind of Americans. But, you know, we've been at this for two years, and we've got this kind of high-tech surveillance cameras, smartphone tracking, real-time movement tracking going on all around us in an attempt to make sure that anyone who gets COVID - they will track anyone they've met in the last several days, lock them all into quarantine. I mean, it's an extraordinary kind of vision of a science fiction future.

FADEL: I mean, with the tracking of people, the QR codes, it also raises issues of civil liberties. Is there room for the dissent against government rules and advice that we see here in the U.S.?

RENNIE: Absolutely not. This is a completely different sort of social contract between the leadership and the people. The deal here - and I think after two years, everyone understands this - is in exchange for most people living in a China that does not have to worry about catching COVID - 'cause most Chinese have never been anywhere near COVID - a minority - but we're now up to tens of millions of people in dozens of cities - basically loses their privacy, is locked indoors for weeks at a time, sometimes without earning any money 'cause they've...

FADEL: Wow.

RENNIE: ...Lost their jobs or can't go to work. That kind of compact would be just absolutely impossible in the West. But it is what the Chinese party is saying is not a success but is, in fact, superior to the American or the Western system. And part of the propaganda here is that Americans are decadent and selfish and individualist and cannot do the tough things that the Chinese Communist Party can do, which makes the Chinese Communist Party ultimately more benevolent because it cares about human life. So this is not just a public health fight; this is a gigantic political contest explicitly between China and the West.

FADEL: Interesting. In the few seconds we have left, where does China stand right now with access to vaccines?

RENNIE: They've banned - or they have not approved foreign vaccines - so the Pfizers, the Modernas, which are clearly more effective than the Chinese vaccines that they're using. They've also not vaccinated their old people in large enough numbers. And so, frankly, they have left themselves, for political reasons, without an exit strategy. And that is going to come to haunt them. But right now they're boasting about toughness being the Chinese solution to COVID.

FADEL: David Rennie is the Beijing bureau chief for The Economist. Thank you so much for your time.

RENNIE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.