Normal. With Chinese Characteristics

Investor sentiment was a semblance of buoyant to start the new week as China eased some COVID restrictions.

An official in Shanghai said “unreasonable” measures on businesses would be lifted, and the city was set to “gradually” resume public transportation starting on June 1. Restrictions on access for residential compounds were removed.

Effectively, the city’s two-month lockdown will end this week, or at least that’s the plan. “We will fully support the resumption of work and production in various industries and fields,” vice mayor Wu Qing said, over the weekend, adding that the “white list” system, which identified critical manufacturers that were allowed to operate during the lockdowns, would end.

In Beijing, mobility restrictions eased, shoppers returned to malls and offices reopened, but, as the AP wrote, “restaurants remain closed, except for takeout and delivery, and many people in Shanghai still can only go out with special passes and for a limited time period.”

A local official in Beijing said the city’s outbreak is “effectively controlled.” The central business district, Chaoyang, is no longer requiring work from home following a seventh consecutive day of zero cases in community. Yang Beibei, another local government official, told a press briefing that the change doesn’t apply to communities still subjected to movement restrictions. The Haidian district, in western Beijing, was poised to implement curbs for a week, while all residents in Fengtai must work from home.

To be clear, China hasn’t achieved “COVID zero.” Beijing had a dozen local cases on Sunday and at least 18 on Monday, one in community. Shanghai reported more than five-dozen local asymptomatic cases on Sunday. One infection was outside quarantine. This endeavor is hopeless. The Party is playing Whac-A-Mole with a highly transmissible, airborne pathogen.

The inherent futility isn’t lost on the Chinese, of course. “The risk of a resurgence remains and we still need to consolidate the prevention work,” a spokesman for the Beijing city government said, calling this “a key moment in pivoting from an emergency response to handling the situation on a more regular basis.”

Who knows what that means. The problem is straightforward: The virus is everywhere, which means that as soon as restrictions are lifted and people begin commingling in close proximity in densely populated urban areas, cases will proliferate. That’s guaranteed. If China opens its borders, the virus will come in from the rest of the world. Nobody, anywhere is going to adopt China’s approach to containment, in part because most developed nations are armed with the mRNA vaccines and new therapeutics. The only way for China to keep its case numbers low is to keep its borders closed and persist in rolling lockdowns.

Yin Xin, a spokeswoman for Shanghai’s government, said the city planned to dial back testing requirements starting later this week for residents entering public spaces in an effort to encourage a return to work. In order to enter a public area or take public transit, people are compelled to show a negative PCR test taken within 72 hours under the new rules. That window was 48 hours until this week. I’m not sure that’s much less onerous.

Yin said the situation “continues to stabilize and improve,” and suggested Shanghai is ready to “pivot towards normalized prevention and control.” But, again, it’s not clear what that means. No one knows what Xi’s idea of “normalized prevention and control” is. It’s certainly not “normal” by the standards of any other nation on Earth. I suppose it’s “normal with Chinese characteristics,” to adopt and adapt a favorite Party line.

Shanghai rolled out a bevy of new support initiatives. 50 of them, to be precise, including quicker approvals for property developments, a higher car ownership quota, tax cuts, tax rebates, more rent reductions, an exhortation for e-commerce platforms to offer more coupons and a hodgepodge of additional measures that I can’t summarize because the page where they were listed (on Shanghai’s official government website) stopped responding. Maybe it’s sick.

Xi is trying to save lives in a politically sensitive year. Saving lives is an admirable goal, irrespective of whether it’s a function of political expediency. Given that, I hesitate to jest, especially given the severe psychological strain these lockdowns have foisted upon everyday people, many of whom plainly believe the policy isn’t necessary at this stage of the pandemic.

Still, some of the images from Beijing and Shanghai are striking. A picture attributed to Hector Retamal, AFP, and featured in one of several related Bloomberg articles published over the past three days, depicts a lone health worker clad in white, head-to-finger-tip-to-toe-tip protective gear, a mask and goggles, riding a small, blue motorbike with a biohazard bin on the back past a bright blue wall on an empty street. A yellow line on the road, complimented by a mustard curb, underlines the bike — the bottom of a frame within the frame. Two trees between which the worker rides are the sides. A trio of signs on closed shops — one red, one orange and one white — are the top.

In addition to the 61 local asymptomatic infections and six local confirmed cases for Sunday, Shanghai had 122 local cases on Saturday and 170 on Friday. Only a few of those cases were outside government quarantine.

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