China defends its retaliation against South Korea and Japan over COVID controls

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Chinese state media on Wednesday defended retaliatory measures against South Korea and Japan for their COVID-19 travel restrictions as “reasonable”, while Chinese tourists denounced Seoul’s “insulting” treatment on social media.

China reopened its borders on Sunday after three years of isolation under the world’s strictest COVID-19 restrictions regime, which Beijing abruptly began dismantling in early December following historic protests.

The unchecked spread of the coronavirus among China’s 1.4 billion people following the 180-degree turn in the strategy has raised concerns among some foreign governments about the scale and impact of the outbreak, with the World Health Organization saying not all deaths are reported.

For the first time, Chinese health authorities — who have reported five or fewer deaths a day over the past month, figures that are at odds with the long lines seen at funeral homes — did not release COVID-19 death toll data Tuesday.

China’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention and the country’s National Health Commission did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

More than a dozen countries, including the United States, Australia and some European Union members, earlier this year imposed negative pre-departure test requirements on visitors from China.

Among them, South Korea and Japan have also limited flights and require testing on arrival and passengers who test positive are sent to quarantine. In South Korea, quarantine is at the expense of the traveler.

In response, the Chinese embassies in Seoul and Tokyo said on Tuesday they had suspended the issuance of short-stay visas for travelers to China and the Foreign Ministry called the test requirements “discriminatory.”

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China demands negative results from visitors from all countries.

The state-run nationalist tabloid Global Times defended Beijing’s retaliation as a “direct and reasonable response to protect its own legitimate interests, especially after some countries continue to exaggerate China’s epidemic situation by imposing travel restrictions for the purpose of political manipulation.”

South Korean Foreign Minister Park Jin said Seoul’s decision was based on scientific evidence and that China’s countermeasures were “deeply regrettable.”

Japan lodged a protest with China over its measures.

“INSULTING”

Chinese anger on social media was mainly directed at South Korea, whose border measures are the strictest among countries that announced new rules.

Videos circulating online showed special lanes coordinated by uniformed soldiers for arrivals from China at the airport, in which travelers received yellow lanyards with QR codes to process test results.

A user of the Chinese social network Weibo, similar to Twitter (NYSE:TWTR), said singling out Chinese travelers was “insulting” and akin to “people treated like criminals and paraded on the streets.”

Global Times reserved a separate article for South Korea, saying the measures made the Chinese suspect Seoul was putting on a “political show.”

Annual spending by overseas Chinese tourists reached $250 billion before the pandemic, with South Korea and Japan among the top shopping destinations.

Repeated lockdowns in China over the past year have hit the world’s second-largest economy. The World Bank said Tuesday that China’s growth in 2022 plunged to 2.7%, its second-slowest pace since the mid-1970s, after 2020.

It predicted a rebound to 4.3% for 2023, but this figure is 0.9 percentage points lower than the June forecast due to the severity of COVID-19 disruptions and weakening external demand.

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COVID-19 MEDICINES

Many Chinese have lost income during last year’s lockdowns, but are now shelling out large sums of money on what local media have described as an emerging underground market for COVID-19 drugs amid severe shortages of antivirals in the country.

China is working to add new drugs to its COVID-19 arsenal, such as Pfizer’s Paxlovid (NYSE:EFP) and Merck’s oral drug molnupiravir.

Merck reached an agreement with the Chinese company Sinopharm to import and distribute the drug. The Chinese company said the drug could be ready for sale before the Lunar New Year, according to local media.

Speculators charge up to 50,000 yuan ($7,389.24) for a box of Paxlovid, more than 20 times its original price, according to Chinese media.

Pfizer Chief Executive Albert Bourla said on Monday that the company was in talks with Chinese authorities about the price of Paxlovid, but not about licensing a generic version in China.

The sudden dismantling of China’s “zero contagion” regime has also overwhelmed hospitals and crematoria across the country.

Although international health experts have predicted at least one million COVID-19-related deaths this year, China has reported just over 5,000 since the pandemic began, a fraction of what much less populous countries have reported when reopening their doors.

China says it has been transparent with its data.

State media claimed that the COVID-19 surge had already passed its peak in Henan, Jiangsu, Zhejiang, Guangdong, Sichuan and Hainan provinces, as well as in the big cities of Beijing and Chongqing, which total more than 500 million inhabitants.

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(1 US dollar = 6.7666 Chinese renminbi yuan)

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