(Adds link to Wuhan story)
Beijing eased curbs in major policy shift on Wednesday
Change came after historic protests last month
HSBC CEO hails new rules as "meaningful progress"
Analysts say virus spike will hurt short-term growth
BEIJING, Dec 9 (Reuters) - Judging by Friday's quiet
streets in China's capital Beijing and the reluctance of some
businesses to drop COVID curbs, enduring anxieties about the
coronavirus are likely to hamper a speedy return to health for
the world's second-largest economy.
Although the government on Wednesday loosened key parts of
its strict "zero-COVID" policy that has kept the pandemic
largely at bay for the past three years, many people appear wary
of being too quick to shake off the shackles.
In the central city of Wuhan, where the new coronavirus
erupted in late 2019, there were more signs of life with some
areas busy with commuters on Friday. But residents say a return
to normal is a long way off.
"They've relaxed the measures but still there's nobody
about," said a taxi driver surnamed Wang, who didn't want to
give his full name.
"You see these roads, these streets ... they ought to be,
busy, full of people. But there's no one. It's dead out here."
Yet China has been anything but placid during the past few
weeks, with protests against COVID curbs in many cities that
marked the biggest show of public discontent since President Xi
Jinping came to power a decade ago.
Some of those protesters, tracked down by China's security
apparatus, now face an anxious wait about their fate.
Little more than a month after the National Health
Commission stressed commitment to its strict virus containment
policy, saying it was "putting people and lives first",
authorities have changed tack and are now telling people they
have less to fear.
The commission announced on Friday that they will convert
temporary facilities used for treating COVID patients into
permanent hospitals to boost treatment efforts.
Zhong Nanshan, a prominent Chinese epidemiologist, said that
99% of people now infected with the virus would recover in 7 to
10 days, in comments reported by the People's Daily, controlled
by the ruling Communist Party.
But there are signs the reassuring new message has still to
convince many of the country's 1.4 billion people.
With the need for tests dropped and most infected people now
being allowed to isolate at home, some have embraced the new
freedoms. For others, habits formed under months of stifling
lockdowns, are proving hard to break.
On the Beijing subway, many seats were empty on Friday night
during what should have been rush hour, even though the city
this week scrapped the need to show negative tests to ride
trains or enter offices.
Some downtown restaurants were deserted at lunchtime.
Amid the caution, state-broadcaster CCTV announced further
easing, with tourism and entertainment venues - including
theatres, libraries, internet cafes and table game centres no
longer requiring COVID tests and health codes.
China's tally of 5,235 COVID-related deaths is a tiny
fraction of its population of 1.4 billion, and extremely low by
global standards. Some experts have warned that toll could rise
above 1.5 million if the exit is too hasty.
Chinese regulators and state-owned banks are taking steps to
split staff at their workplaces in Beijing, sources told
Reuters, as businesses brace for a possible spike in COVID
Manufacturers remain cautious too, retaining COVID curbs
until they get a clearer picture of just how workplaces will be
affected by the easing of stringent measures.
Businesses told Reuters they were expecting to have to
grapple with long periods with workers off sick that could
hamper operations, perhaps for months.
While authorities have scrapped testing as a pre-requisite
for many activities, hotpot chain Haidilao said it
would continue to require daily PCR tests for staff at its
dine-in outlets in Beijing.
Analysts and business leaders expect China's economy to
rebound late next year as it follows the rocky path trodden by
the rest of the world to open up and try to live with the
China's battered yuan currency climbed to a
three-month high early on Friday and its stock markets rose as
investors looked beyond poor data to growth prospects.
Noel Quinn, chief executive of HSBC, which makes
the bulk of its revenue in the Greater China region, told a
financial forum in Shanghai that China's new measures
represented "meaningful progress".
"I very much hope that they can be an important stepping
stone towards the full reopening of mainland China's borders as
soon as practicable," he told the Shanghai Bund Summit via video
A surge in infections would likely depress economic growth
in the next few months, however.
The China Association of Automobile Manufacturers warned
that large-scale COVID infections would have an "adverse impact"
on the auto market next year.
"There's going to be chaos," said Jeffrey Goldstein, a
China-based consultant who helps foreign brands manufacture
goods in Asia.
"China's three years behind, so what's going to happen in
China is what happened in the rest of the world."
A Reuters poll forecast China's growth to slow to 3.2% in
2022, far below the official target of about 5.5%, marking one
of the worst performances in almost half a century.
(Reporting by Ryan Woo, Bernard Orr and the Beijing newsroom,
Brenda Goh, Josh Horwitz and Jason Xue, Zoey Zhang in Shanghai,
Martin Pollard in Wuhan and Selena Li in Hong Kong; Writing by
John Geddie and Greg Torode; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore,
Frank Jack Daniel and Raissa Kasolowsky)