BEIJING (AP) — Two years after separating from his wife in mainland China, Hong Kong resident Cheung Sing-pun made sure he was among the first in line after border crossing points reopened Sunday.
The ability of residents of the semi-autonomous southern Chinese city to cross is one of the most visible signs of China’s easing of border restrictions, as travelers arriving from abroad are no longer required to undergo quarantine.
“I’m hurrying back to it,” Cheung, carrying a heavy bag, told the Associated Press as he prepared to cross at Loc Ma Chau station.
However, travelers transiting between Hong Kong and mainland China must still show a negative COVID-19 test taken within the past 48 hours – a measure China protested when other countries imposed it.
Hong Kong has been hit hard by the virus, and land and sea border checkpoints with the mainland have been largely closed for nearly three years. Despite the risk of new infections, the reopening that will allow tens of thousands of people who made advance online reservations to cross each day is expected to provide a much-needed boost to Hong Kong’s tourism and retail sectors.
On a visit to the station Sunday morning, Hong Kong Chief Executive John Lee said the two sides will continue to increase the number of crossing points from the current seven to a full 14.
“The aim is to return as quickly as possible to normal life before the epidemic,” Li told reporters. “We want to put the cooperation between the two sides back on track.”
About 200 passengers are expected to take the ferry to Hong Kong, while another 700 are scheduled to travel the other way, on the first, the Communist Party newspaper Global Times quoted Tan Luming, a port official in Shenzhen on the border with Hong Kong, as saying. reopening day. Tan said a steady increase in passenger numbers is expected in the coming days.
“I stayed up all night and woke up at 4:00 in the morning because I am so excited to go back to the mainland to see my 80-year-old mother,” said a Hong Kong woman identified only by her last name, Cheung, on her arrival in Shenzhen, where she was introduced. Her “roses and sanitary ware,” the paper reported.
According to media reports in Hong Kong, about 300,000 travel reservations have already been made from the city to mainland China.
Limited ferry service from China’s Fujian Province to Taiwan-controlled Kinmen Island off the Chinese coast has also been restored.
The border crossing with Russia at Suifenhe in the remote northern province of Heilongjiang has also resumed normal operations, just in time for the opening of the Ice Festival in the capital, Harbin, a major tourist attraction.
However, China’s borders remain largely closed, with only a fraction of the previous number of international flights arriving at major airports.
Beijing’s main Capital International Airport expects eight flights from abroad on Sunday, the airport said. China’s largest city, Shanghai, received its first international flight under the new policy at 6:30 am, leaving only a handful of other international flights remaining.
That number is now expected to rise, as booking inquiries for overseas trips overwhelm some online travel services ahead of the Lunar New Year travel rush later this month. Capital International is preparing to reopen arrivals lounges that have been quiet for most of the past three years.
Meanwhile, Shanghai announced that it will again start issuing regular passports to Chinese for foreign travel and family visits, as well as renewing and extending visas for foreigners. These restrictions have had a particularly devastating impact on foreign businessmen and students in the major Asian financial hub.
China is now facing an increase in the number of cases and hospitalizations In major cities and is preparing for further spread in less developed regions with the onset of China’s most important holiday of the year, which is scheduled to start in the coming days.
Authorities say they expect domestic rail and air travel to double over the same period last year, bringing overall numbers close to those for the pre-pandemic 2019 holiday period.
Meanwhile, controversy continues over testing requirements imposed on Chinese travelers by foreign governments – most recently Germany and Sweden. German Foreign Minister Analina Berbock on Saturday urged citizens to avoid “non-essential” travel to China, citing rising coronavirus cases in the country and saying China’s health system was “overburdened”.
The German regulation also allows for immediate checks upon arrival, and Germany, like other European countries, will test sewage from planes for possible new virus variants. The measures go into effect at midnight Monday, and are set to last until April 7.
Clearly worried about its reputation, China says testing requirements are not based on science and has threatened unspecified countermeasures.
Chinese health authorities publish a daily tally of new cases, severe cases, and deaths, but these figures include only officially confirmed cases and use a very narrow definition of deaths related to COVID-19.
Authorities say that since the government ended compulsory testing and allowed people with mild symptoms to test themselves and recover at home, they can no longer provide a complete picture of the state of the latest outbreak.
Government spokespeople said the situation was under control and rejected accusations by the World Health Organization and others of not being transparent about the number of cases and deaths or providing other important information about the nature of the current outbreak that could lead to the disease emerging. of the new variables.
Despite those assurances, the Health Commission on Saturday issued regulations to strengthen viral mutation surveillance, including urban sewage testing. The lengthy rules called for increased data collection from hospitals and local government health departments and extensive testing for “pneumonia of unknown cause”.
Criticism has largely focused on the harsh enforcement of the regulations, including open-ended travel restrictions that have left people confined to their homes for weeks, sometimes locked indoors without adequate food or medical care.
Anger was also vented over the requirement that anyone who potentially tested positive or had contact with such a person be held for observation in a field hospital, where overcrowding and poor food and hygiene are commonly cited.
The social and economic costs eventually led to rare street protests in Beijing and other cities, which could influence the Communist Party’s decision to quickly ease tougher measures and reprioritize growth.
As part of the recent changes, China will no longer file criminal charges against people accused of violating border quarantine regulations, according to a notice issued by five government departments on Saturday.
The notice said the individuals currently in custody would be released and the confiscated assets returned.
The Ministry of Transport on Friday called on travelers to limit trips and gatherings, especially if they include the elderly, pregnant women, young children and those with underlying conditions.
Associated Press correspondents Alice Fong and Carmen Lee in Hong Kong and Frank Jordan in Berlin contributed to this report.