BEIJING (AP) — After years of separation from his wife in mainland China, Hong Kong resident Cheung Cheng-bun made sure to be first in line following the reopening of border crossings on Sunday.
The ability of residents of the semi-autonomous southern Chinese city to cross is one of the most visible signs that China is easing border controls imposed nearly three years ago, with travelers from abroad no longer required to undergo costly and time-consuming quarantine. .
It comes as the virus continues to spread in China amid what critics say is a lack of transparency from Beijing.
“I’m rushing back to her,” Cheung told The Associated Press as he packed a heavy suitcase and prepared to cross Lok Ma Chau station, which steadily filled with eager commuters.
However, those crossing between Hong Kong and mainland China must still show a negative COVID-19 test taken within the last 48 hours — something China has protested when imposed by other countries.
Hong Kong has been hit hard by the virus, and its land and sea border checkpoints have been largely closed for nearly three years. Despite the risk of new infections, the reopening, which allows tens of thousands of people with reservations to cross each day, is expected to provide a much-needed boost to Hong Kong’s tourism and retail sectors.
During a visit to the station on Sunday morning, Hong Kong Chief Executive John Lee said the number of crossing points will be expanded from the current seven to a full 14.
“The goal is to return to pre-pandemic normal life as soon as possible,” Lee told reporters. “We want to get cooperation between the two sides back on track.”
About 200 passengers are expected to take the ferry to Hong Kong, and another 700 will travel in the other direction, the Communist Party newspaper Global Times quoted Dan Luming, a port official in Shenzhen, which borders Hong Kong. Re-opening day. Tan said a steady increase in passenger numbers is expected in the coming days.
“I stayed up all night and woke up at 4 a.m. I’m so excited to return to the mainland to see my 80-year-old mother,” said a Hong Kong woman identified only by her surname Cheung. Shenzhen, where he was presented with “roses and health kits”.
Hong Kong media reports that around 300,000 travel bookings have already been made from the city to mainland China, with a daily quota of 60,000.
Limited ferry service from China’s Fujian province to the Taiwanese-controlled island of Kinmen just off the Chinese coast was also restored.
Regular border crossings with Russia resumed at Sufenhe in the northern province of Heilongjiang, just as the snow festival began in the capital, Harbin, a major tourist attraction.
In Ruli, on the border with Myanmar, normal operations resumed after 1,012 days of full or partial closure in response to repeated outbreaks on visitors from neighboring China.
So far, only a fraction of the previous number of international flights are arriving at major Chinese airports.
Beijing’s main capital international airport expects eight flights from overseas on Sunday. Shanghai, China’s largest city, received its first international flight at 6:30 a.m. under the new policy.
As of March 2020, all international passenger flights bound for Beijing have been diverted to designated first points of entry into China. Travelers must be quarantined for up to three weeks.
“I’ve been in quarantine six times in different cities (in mainland China),” said Ivan Tang, a Hong Kong business traveler. “Those are not easy experiences.”
Ming Guangge, a Chinese living in Singapore, said it was difficult to book tickets and find somewhere to take the PCR test. The quarantine measures and uncertainty about the outbreaks kept him away from home, Ming said.
Shanghai announced it will resume issuing regular passports to Chinese for overseas travel and family trips, and renewing and extending visas for foreigners. Those restrictions have had a particularly devastating effect on foreign businessmen and students in major Asian financial centers.
China is now facing an increase in cases and hospitalizations In major cities and its most important holiday, the Lunar New Year, is set to spread further in less developed areas as it begins in the coming days.
Officials say domestic rail and air travel is expected to double from the same period last year, with overall numbers comparable to the 2019 holiday season before the pandemic hit.
Meanwhile, several foreign governments are imposing testing requirements on travelers from China – most recently Germany, Sweden and Portugal. On Saturday, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbach urged citizens to avoid “unnecessary” travel to China, citing a surge in coronavirus cases and China’s “overburdened” health system.
German regulation allows for spot checks on arrival. Germany, like other European countries, will test sewage from airplanes for new virus variants. The measures will come into effect from midnight on Monday and will last until April 7.
China, apparently concerned about its reputation, says the testing requirements are not scientifically based and threatens unspecified countermeasures.
Chinese health officials publish daily numbers of new infections, severe cases and deaths, but those numbers include only officially confirmed cases and use a very narrow definition of COVID-19-related deaths.
The National Health Commission on Sunday recorded 7,072 new confirmed cases of local transmission and two new deaths – with individual provinces reporting 1 million cases a day.
Officials say they can no longer provide the full picture of the outbreak as the government ends mandatory testing and allows people with mild symptoms to self-test and recover at home. China’s risks are exacerbated by the general lack of virus exposure in the population and relatively low vaccination rates among the elderly.
Government spokesmen insist the situation is under control and reject accusations by the World Health Organization and others that it has not been transparent about the outbreak, which could lead to the emergence of new variants.
The health commission on Saturday issued regulations for enhanced surveillance of viral mutations, including testing of urban sewage. The rules called for data collection from hospitals and local government health departments and intensive testing for “pneumonia of unknown cause.”
Criticism has often focused on the harsh enforcement of restrictions, including open-ended travel restrictions that have seen people confined to their homes for weeks, sometimes without adequate food or medical care.
Anger was also expressed over the requirement that those who test positive or have been in contact with such a person be confined for observation in a field hospital, where overcrowding, poor food and sanitation are commonly cited.
The social and economic costs ultimately fueled rare street protests in Beijing and other cities, which could affect the Communist Party’s decision to quickly ease tough measures.
Associated Press reporters Alice Fung and Carmen Li in Hong Kong and Frank Jordans in Berlin contributed to this report.