BEIJING (AP) — After two years of separation from his wife in mainland China, Hong Kong resident Cheung Seng-bun made sure to be among the first in line after border crossings reopened on 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, with travelers arriving from abroad also no longer required to undergo quarantine.
“I’m in a hurry to get back to her,” Cheng, lugging a heavy suitcase, told The Associated Press as he prepared to cross at Lok Ma Chau station.
However, travelers transiting between Hong Kong and mainland China must still show a negative COVID-19 test taken in the past 48 hours, a measure China protested when it was imposed by other countries.
Hong Kong has been hit hard by the virus, and its land and sea border crossings with the mainland have been largely closed for nearly three years. Despite the risk of new infections, the reopening, which will allow tens of thousands of people who previously made online reservations to pass each day, is expected to provide a much-needed boost to Hong Kong’s tourism and retail sectors.
In a visit to the station on Sunday morning, Hong Kong Chief Executive John Lee said the countries would continue to expand the number of crossing points from the current seven to the full 14.
“The goal is to return as quickly as possible to the normal life before the epidemic,” Lee told reporters. “We want to restore cooperation between the two countries.”
The Communist Party newspaper Global Times quoted Tan Luming, a port official in Shenzhen on the Hong Kong border, as saying about 200 passengers were expected to take the ferry to Hong Kong, while another 700 had to travel the other way, on the first day of reopening . Tan said a steady increase in passenger numbers is expected in the coming days.
“I stayed up all night and got up at 4:00 a.m. as I’m so excited to go back to the mainland to see my 80-year-old mother,” a Hong Kong woman identified only by her surname, Cheung, said on arrival in Shenzhen, where she was given “roses and health kits,” the paper said.
Hong Kong media reports that around 300,000 travel bookings have already been made from the city to mainland China.
Limited ferry services were also restored from China’s Fujian province to Taiwan-controlled Kinmen Island, just off the Chinese coast.
The Russian border crossing at Suifenhe in northernmost Heilongjiang province 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 was expecting eight flights from overseas on Sunday, according to the airport. Shanghai, China’s largest city, received its first international flight under the new policy at 6:30 a.m., with only a few other international flights following.
That number is now expected to grow, with booking inquiries for overseas flights outpacing some online travel services ahead of the Lunar New Year travel rush later this month. Capital International is preparing to reopen arrivals halls that have been quiet for most of the past three years.
Meanwhile, Shanghai announced it will resume issuing regular passports to Chinese for overseas travel and family visits, as well as renewing and extending visas for foreigners. These restrictions have had a particularly devastating effect on foreign businessmen and students in the key Asian financial center.
China is now facing a surge in cases and hospitalizations in major cities and is preparing to spread further to less developed areas with the start of China’s most important holiday of the year starting in the coming days.
Authorities say they expect domestic rail and air travel to double from the same period last year, bringing totals closer to those of the 2019 holiday period before the pandemic hit.
Meanwhile, controversy continues over testing requirements imposed on Chinese travelers by foreign governments – most recently Germany and Sweden. On Saturday, German Foreign Minister Analena Berbock urged citizens to avoid “unnecessary” travel to China, noting the country’s rise in coronavirus cases and saying China’s health system was “overwhelmed.”
The German regulation also allows spot checks upon arrival, and Germany, like other European nations, will test aircraft effluent for possible new variants of the virus. The measures come into effect on Monday at midnight and will last until April 7.
Apparently concerned about its reputation, China says the testing requirements are not scientifically based and they have done so threatened unspecified countermeasures.
Chinese health authorities publish daily numbers of new cases, severe cases and deaths, but these numbers only include officially confirmed cases and use very narrow definition of deaths related to COVID-19.
Officials say that after the government ended mandatory testing and allowed people with mild symptoms to be tested and recover at home, it can no longer provide a full picture of the state of the latest outbreak.
Government spokesmen said the situation was under control and rejected accusations by the World Health Organization and others that it was not being transparent about the number of cases and deaths or providing other important information about the nature of the current outbreak, which could lead to the emergence of new variants.
Despite such claims, the health commission on Saturday introduced regulations for increased monitoring of viral mutations, including testing of city wastewater. The lengthy rules call for increased data collection by hospitals and local health departments and increased checks for “pneumonia of unknown cause.”
Criticism has largely been directed at the strict enforcement of the regulations, including unlimited travel restrictions, which have left people confined to their homes for weeks at a time, sometimes locked inside without adequate food or medical care.
Anger was also expressed over the requirement that anyone who has potentially tested positive or been in contact with such a person be detained for observation at a field hospital, where overcrowding, poor food and hygiene are often cited.
The social and economic costs eventually sparked rare street protests in Beijing and other cities, likely influencing the Communist Party’s decision to quickly ease the strictest measures and redirect growth.
As part of the latest changes, China will no longer bring criminal charges against people accused of violating border quarantine regulations, according to a notice issued by five government departments on Saturday.
Those currently in custody will be released and seized assets will be returned, the release said.
The Department of Transportation urged commuters on Friday to reduce trips and gatherings, especially if they include the elderly, pregnant women, young children and people with co-morbidities.
Associated Press reporters Alice Fung and Carmen Li in Hong Kong and Frank Jordans in Berlin contributed to this report.
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