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Authorities in Beijing have sparked confusion and alarm after announcing the strict zero-Covid policy could be in place for the next five years, including mass mandatory testing and travel restrictions.

The notice, published on Monday afternoon, was attributed to Cai Qi, the Beijing secretary of the Chinese Communist party. The original text said: “In the next five years, Beijing will unremittingly grasp the normalisation of epidemic prevention and control.”

The notice was first posted by Beijing Daily and republished by other state media outlets. It spread widely across social media, but soon the reference to “five years” was removed from most online publications, and a related hashtag on Weibo was deleted.

It committed to maintain and improve the city’s “strict management of the joint prevention and control coordination mechanism”, and the emergency response system, including those designed to shut down circulation and transfer of the virus through “isolation, management and control… as soon as [transmissions] appear”. It also noted the continuation of strict residential inspections, the “normalisation” of regular testing, and the management of entry and exit to the city.

China’s authorities, under direction from president Xi Jinping, have repeatedly committed the country to the zero-Covid policy, despite the rest of the world choosing a path of coexistence or mitigation. Xi has ordered authorities to balance zero-Covid with economic growth, as the unpredictable measures grate with locals.

Monday’s announcement and the subsequent amendment sparked anger and confusion among Beijing residents online. Most commenters appeared unsurprised at the prospect of the system continuing for another half-decade, but few were supportive of the idea.

“Countdown to escape China,” said one Weibo user.

“The ultimate goal of fighting the epidemic is to return to normal life, and it seems that everyone has forgotten about this,” another noted.

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A hashtag related to “in the next five years Beijing will unremittingly grasp the normalisation of epidemic and control” was viewed nearly 1m times before it was removed within a few hours.

Authorities have not clarified the statement or the removal of the reference to five years. Some observers suggested the “five years” phrase was a term used often in government announcements, but which appeared to be a timeline in this context, or that it was erroneously added in by the original publisher of the notice – the Beijing Daily.

The Beijing Daily did not provide clarification when contacted by the Guardian.

China’s “dynamic zero” strategy was effective during outbreaks of earlier variants, but was challenged by the high transmissibility of Omicron. The policy resulted in a lengthy, at times chaotic, and economically damaging lockdown in Shanghai, and tough travel and social curbs in Beijing. Other cities have also undergone arduous lockdowns, either city-wide or neighbourhood specific. Many cities and provinces have enacted compulsory mass testing every few days for residents who wish to move about the city.

On Sunday, Beijing announced in-person schooling would restart. Shanghai authorities also reported no new cases at the weekend for the first time since March. However, the threat of sudden lockdowns or travel curbs persists. Last week, Shenzhen contained a neighbourhood and locked down several residential buildings, after a single case was reported. On Sunday, it was extended to close entertainment venues and parks, as case numbers climbed to a dozen.

Additional research by Xiaoqian Zhu



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