When a handful of new cases of coronavirus occurred in a province around Beijing this month – apparently spread at a village wedding – Chinese authorities took action.
They closed two cities with more than 17 million people, Shijiazhuang and Xingtai. They ordered a crash test regime for almost every resident there, which was completed within days.
They cut off transportation and canceled weddings, funerals and, most importantly, a provincial Communist Party conference.
By this week, the lockdowns spread to another city on the outskirts of Beijing, Langfang, as well as a province in Heilongjiang, a northeastern province. Also in Beijing itself, the Chinese capital, ditches were closed.
In total, more than 22 million people have been ordered to stay in their homes – doubling the number hit last January when China's central government Wuhan, the central city where the virus was first reported, locked. seen as extraordinary.
The flare-ups remain small compared to the devastation other countries are facing, but they threaten to undermine the success of the country's Communist Party in suppressing the virus, which could cause the economy to kick back after last year's crisis and population can return to something close to normal life.
The urgency of the government's current response contrasts with that of officials in Wuhan last year feared a backlash if they revealed the mysterious new illnesses that then surfaced. Local officials there had continued with a Communist Party conference as it is now being called off in Hebei, despite knowing the disease would spread among the people.
Since Wuhan, authorities have created a road map that mobilizes party cadres to respond quickly to new outbreaks by shutting down neighborhoods, conducting large-scale tests and quarantining large groups where necessary.
"In the process of infectious disease prevention and control, one of the most important points is to seek the truth from facts, to openly and transparently release epidemic information and never allow it to be covered up or underreported", Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang said at a meeting on Friday of the State Council, the Chinese cabinet.
China, a country of 1.4 billion people, reported an average of 109 new cases per day in the past week, according to one Database of the New York Times. Those would be welcome numbers in countries that are much worse off – including the United States, which has an average of more than 250,000 new cases every day – but they are the worst in China since last summer.
On Thursday, the Chinese National Health Commission reported a coronavirus death on the mainland for the first time since May.
In Hebei, the province where the new outbreak has concentrated, officials last week declared a "war state" showing no signs of dissolution.
During the pandemic, officials were found to be particularly concerned about Beijing, home to the central leadership of the Communist Party. Last week, party secretary in Hebei, Wang Dongfeng, promised to ensure that the province would become "the moat to protect Beijing's political security."
The outbreaks, which came with minimal cases after so long, have heightened concern in China, where residents in most places felt that the pandemic was a thing of the past.
New cases have also been reported in northern Shanxi province and northeastern Heilongjiang and Jilin provinces. Shanghai on Wednesday called on residents not to leave the city, announcing that people who had traveled to high-risk areas should quarantine themselves at home for two weeks and leave after two tests, while those who traveled to the most high-risk areas , were quarantined in government facilities.
Rumors circulated in Wuhan that the city would face another lockdown; although those seemed unfounded, officials in some streets were noticeably tightening up temperature controls.
In Shunyi, a district in northeast Beijing that includes Beijing Capital International Airport as well as rural villages, residents have been ordered to stay indoors since a spate of cases just before the new year. At Beijing's main train stations, workers sprayed public areas with disinfectant.
After a Beijing taxi driver tested positive over the weekend, authorities tracked down 144 passengers for additional tests The Global Times, a state tabloid. Now anyone who gets into a taxi or car service in Beijing must scan a QR code from their phone so that the government can quickly trace them.
The government has planned to vaccinate 50 million people in the run-up to next month's Lunar New Year, a holiday on which hundreds of millions of people traditionally travel across the country to visit their families. More than 10 million doses were distributed on Wednesday.
Even with the vaccinations, officials have warned people not to travel for the holidays.
"These measures, if properly implemented, can ensure that there is no large-scale epidemic upsurge," said Feng Zijian, deputy director of China's Center for Disease Control, at a briefing in Beijing on Wednesday.
While millions of people have been affected by the new restrictions, there does not seem to be any significant public resistance to them.
“As far as I'm concerned, I think measures like a city-wide lockdown are actually pretty good,” said Zhao Zhengyu, a Beijing university student who is now locked up in her parents' house in Shijiazhuang, where she visited during a winter break when the outbreak broke out there.
Many in the city feared a repeat of Wuhan & # 39; s lockdown, but she sounded unfazed.
Ms. Zhao's parents now work from home and only get groceries from a market in their housing complex. She regretted not being able to meet friends or study in the library, but said online learning has become routine.
& # 39; Maybe we've gotten used to it, & # 39; she said.
The response underscored how quickly the government is mobilizing its resources to contain outbreaks.
After the lockdown was announced in Shijiazhuang on January 6, authorities collected more than 10 million coronavirus test samples over the next three days – nearly one for each resident, officials said a press conference in the city. Those tests yielded 354 positive results, although some cases were asymptomatic.
A second round of massive nucleic acid tests began Tuesday.
"In fact, this is a kind of war system – it uses the resources of wartime for social control in peacetime – and this war system works during a pandemic," said Chen Min, a writer and former newspaper editor known by the pseudonym Xiao. Shu. Mr. Chen was in Wuhan last year when the city was shut down.
The nature of the country's governance gave it the means to deal with the epidemic – even though some of the measures seemed excessive.
"Chinese cities enforce a housing system – smaller ones have hundreds of residents, big ones have tens of thousands – and by closing the gates you can lock tens of thousands of people," said Mr. Chen in a telephone interview. "Whenever they come across these kinds of problems, they will certainly apply this method. That would be impossible in Western countries."
Chris Buckley and Keith Bradsher contributed to the reporting. Claire Fu contributed research.