BEIJING, Dec 13 (Reuters) – People in China on Tuesday celebrated the withdrawal of a state-mandated app that could track whether they had traveled to COVID-hit areas, in the latest relaxation of some of the world’s toughest antivirus rules.
China last week began scrapping key parts of its strict “zero-COVID” regime following widespread protests over the past month over the curbs, which have been mainland China’s biggest public discontent since taking power demonstrated by President Xi Jinping in 2012.
That included ending mandatory testing before many public activities, curbing quarantines and now shutting down an app called Itinerary Code, which critics said could be used for mass surveillance and social scrutiny of the populace.
When authorities disabled the app at midnight Monday, China’s four telecom companies said they would delete user data associated with the app. Netizens flocked to social media platform Weibo to cheer its demise.
“Goodbye itinerary code, I hope we never meet again,” one user wrote. “The hand that was stretched out to wield power during the epidemic should now be withdrawn,” wrote another.
Itinerary codes have mainly been used to track domestic travel within China, while authorities also use so-called health codes, which residents must scan to enter public places to check if they may have been exposed to the virus.
While authorities have not announced their deaths, several cities, including Shanghai, have said residents are no longer required to show these codes when entering places like shops and restaurants.
The lifting of the restrictions comes ahead of the Chinese New Year holiday next month, when large numbers of people are expected to travel across China to visit family for the first time in years.
Beijing’s envoy to the United States said Monday he believes China’s COVID-19 measures will be further relaxed in the near future and international travel to the country will also become easier.
Since the outbreak of the pandemic in late 2019 in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, China has all but closed its borders to international travel. International flights are still at a fraction of pre-pandemic levels and arrivals are being quarantined for eight days.
Border closures and repeated lockdowns in major cities to eradicate the virus have ravaged the world’s second largest economy.
While the lifting of controls will improve prospects for global growth in the longer term, analysts say Chinese companies will struggle in the coming weeks as a wave of infections causes staff shortages and makes consumers suspicious.
The spread of the disease, evidenced by long queues outside fever clinics and testing centers in recent days, is also likely to increase pressure on China’s fragile healthcare system, which experts say could quickly be overwhelmed.
In China’s capital Beijing, empty seats on commuter trains and deserted downtown restaurants have underscored some people’s reluctance to embrace newfound freedoms.
“I can understand,” Gao Lin, a 33-year-old financier, told Reuters on the streets of the capital. “Perhaps other people are scared or concerned about the health of children and grandparents. It’s a personal choice.”
Reporting by Bernard Orr in Beijing and Brenda Goh in Shanghai; writing by John Geddie; Edited by Simon Cameron Moore
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