Chinese authorities have intensified their battle against a new wave of coronavirus cases — as well as a blame game with the US — in an effort to suppress a series of outbreaks in and around Beijing.
Officials said on Wednesday that they would check on anyone who had entered the Chinese capital since December 10 and tightened control measures in two districts of the city.
Authorities have been spooked by an outbreak in Hebei province, which surrounds the capital, the country’s worst since last spring. Of the 88 locally transmitted cases confirmed across China on Tuesday, 19 were discovered in Hebei and another six in a Beijing district that borders the province, triggering mass testing and targeted lockdowns in the capital.
Officials have also restricted movement in and out of Shunyi, a popular residential area where the city’s main airport is located.
The deteriorating situation comes almost exactly a year after the virus first emerged in the central city of Wuhan and just weeks before the annual Chinese new year holiday, when hundreds of millions of people criss-cross the country.
But Chinese officials have strongly contested most experts’ assertion that the virus originated in or near Wuhan, where a team of World Health Organization experts is investigating the roots of the pandemic.
The hottest topic on Chinese social media on Wednesday was “Fort Detrick”, a military facility in Maryland where the US army conducts germ research. Hua Chunying, China’s chief foreign ministry spokesperson, has said Fort Detrick should be investigated as a possible source of the pandemic.
Some Chinese officials have previously peddled unproven conspiracy theories that coronavirus was “imported” into Wuhan by members of a US military team that competed in a sports event there in 2019.
Ms Hua and other Chinese officials have been repeatedly enraged by the Trump administration’s suggestions that coronavirus may have escaped from a Chinese research facility in Wuhan. The US State Department said last week it had “reason to believe” several researchers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology came down with “symptoms consistent with both Covid-19 and common seasonal illnesses” in late 2019.
Chinese state media outlets have also tried to sow doubts about the efficacy of western Covid-19 vaccines in an effort to counter what they say is biased foreign criticism of China’s vaccine development programme.
Joe Biden’s incoming administration is not expected to escalate the war of words with China over the origins of coronavirus. The president-elect has also pledged to reverse Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the WHO.
But the Trump administration has enacted a late series of sanctions targeting Chinese officials and companies that Mr Biden is unlikely to unwind, given broad bipartisan support for a tougher approach to Beijing.
Mike Pompeo, US secretary of state, said on Tuesday that the US government considered Chinese repression of Muslim Uighurs in the northwestern region of Xinjiang to be “genocide”. Antony Blinken, Mr Biden’s nominee to be secretary of state, told a Senate confirmation hearing that he agreed with the designation.
Additional reporting by Xueqiao Wang in Shanghai