BEIJING (AP) – After two years of being separated from his wife in mainland China, Hong Kong resident Cheung Seng-bun made sure he was among the first in line after border crossings reopened on 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, as travelers arriving from abroad are also no longer required to quarantine.
“I hurry to get back to her,” Cheung, who was lugging a heavy suitcase, told The Associated Press as he prepared to cross at Lok Ma Chau station.
However, travelers crossing Hong Kong and mainland China must still present a negative COVID-19 test taken within the past 48 hours – a measure China has protested when it was imposed by other countries.
Hong Kong has been hit hard by the virus, and its land and sea border checkpoints with the mainland have largely been closed for nearly three years. Despite the risk of new infections, the reopening, which will allow tens of thousands of people who previously booked online to cross the border each day, is expected to give Hong Kong’s tourism and retail sectors a much-needed boost.
Visiting the station on Sunday morning, Hong Kong Chief Executive John Lee said the sides would increase the number of border crossings to the full 14 from the current seven.
“The goal is to get back to normal life before the epidemic as soon as possible,” Lee told reporters. “We want to get the cooperation of both sides going again.”
The communist party newspaper Global Times quoted Tan Luming, a port official in Shenzhen on the Hong Kong border, as saying about 200 passengers were expected to take the ferry to Hong Kong, while another 700 were due to travel the other way on the first day the reopening. According to Tan, a steady increase in passenger numbers is expected in the coming days.
“I stayed up all night and got up at 4 a.m. because I’m so excited to return to the mainland to see my 80-year-old mother,” said a Hong Kong woman, best known by her last name, Cheung Arrived in Shenzhen, where she was presented with “roses and health kits,” the newspaper said.
According to media reports from Hong Kong, around 300,000 travel bookings have already been made from the city to mainland China.
A limited ferry service from China’s Fujian province to the Taiwanese-controlled island of Kinmen off the Chinese coast had also been restored.
The border crossing with Russia at Suifenhe in the far northern province of Heilongjiang also resumed normal operations, just in time for the opening of the capital Harbin’s Ice Festival, a major tourist magnet.
However, China’s borders remain largely sealed, with only a fraction of the previous number of international flights landing at major airports.
Beijing’s main airport, Capital International, was expecting eight flights from overseas, according to the airport on Sunday. Shanghai, China’s largest city, received its first international flight under the new policy at 6:30 a.m., followed by just a few more international flights.
That number is expected to rise as booking requests for overseas flights overwhelm some online travel services ahead of the Lunar New Year travel rush later this month. Capital International is preparing to reopen arrivals halls that have largely been quiet for the past three years.
Meanwhile, Shanghai announced it would resume issuing regular passports to Chinese people for overseas travel and family visits, and renew and extend visas for foreigners. These restrictions have had a particularly devastating impact on foreign businesspeople and students in Asia’s key financial hub.
China is now facing a surge in cases and hospitalizations in major cities, and is preparing for further spread to less-developed areas with the start of China’s most important holiday of the year, which is set to begin in the coming days.
Authorities expect domestic rail and air travel to double from the same period last year, bringing the totals close to the 2019 holiday season before the outbreak of the pandemic.
Meanwhile, the controversy over testing requirements imposed on Chinese travelers by foreign governments — most recently Germany and Sweden — continues. On Saturday, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock urged citizens to avoid “unnecessary” trips to China. Noting the increase in coronavirus cases in the country, she said China’s healthcare system is “overwhelmed”.
The German regulation also calls for spot checks on arrival, and Germany, like other European nations, will test waste water from planes for possible new virus variants. The measures will come into effect at midnight on Monday and are expected to last until April 7th.
Apparently concerned about its reputation, China says the testing requirements are not science-based and has threatened unspecified countermeasures.
Chinese health authorities release daily numbers of new cases, severe cases and deaths, but these numbers only include officially confirmed cases and use a very narrow definition of COVID-19-related deaths.
Authorities say that since the government ended mandatory testing and allowed people with mild symptoms to test themselves and recover at home, it has not been able to provide a full picture of the status of the recent outbreak.
Government spokesmen said the situation was under control, dismissing accusations from the World Health Organization and others that it was not making transparent the number of cases and deaths, or providing other important information about the nature of the current outbreak that could lead to the emergence of new variants.
Despite such claims, the Health Commission on Saturday introduced regulations for increased surveillance for virus mutations, including testing of urban sewage. The lengthy rules called for increased data collection from hospitals and local government health departments, and increased checks for “pneumonia of unknown cause.”
Criticism has largely focused on stubborn enforcement of regulations, including indefinite travel restrictions that have left people locked in their homes for weeks, sometimes without adequate food or medical care.
Anger was also raised over the requirement that anyone who may have tested positive or had been in contact with such a person be confined to a field hospital for observation, where overcrowding, poor nutrition and hygiene were often cited.
The social and economic costs eventually sparked rare street protests in Beijing and other cities, possibly influencing the Communist Party’s decision to quickly relax the most stringent measures and reprioritize growth.
As part of the latest changes, China will also stop filing criminal charges against people accused of violating quarantine regulations at the border, according to a notice issued by five government agencies on Saturday.
Those currently in custody will be released and confiscated assets returned, the statement said.
The Department for Transport on Friday urged travelers to reduce travel and gatherings, particularly those affecting the elderly, pregnant women, young children and those with underlying medical conditions.
Associated Press reporters Alice Fung and Karmen Li in Hong Kong and Frank Jordans in Berlin contributed to this report.
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