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While thousands of visitors to Shanghai Disneyland were lining up Sunday for roller coasters and watching fireworks above the fairy-tale castle, staff quietly sealed the amusement park. People in hazmat suits streamed in through the gates, preparing to test everyone for COVID-19 before they could leave for the day.

Nearly 34,000 people at Disneyland underwent testing, which ended close to midnight — long after the festivities at the park are usually finished. Ferried home on 220 special buses, all were found to be negative by Monday but are still required to isolate at home for two days, and be retested for the coronavirus in two weeks.

The shutdown of one of Walt Disney Co.’s most lucrative parks came after a case of COVID-19 was confirmed in a woman who traveled to Shanghai from nearby Hangzhou over the weekend. While officials are yet to confirm whether she visited Disneyland, her infection sparked an aggressive contract tracing effort across China, which eventually ensnared the park-goers, their families and Disneyland staff.

To people in parts of the world where the disease is already endemic, the reaction may seem extreme. But it’s emblematic of China’s increasingly hardcore approach to keeping the pathogen out at any cost.

Since containing its initial outbreak in Wuhan last April, China has sought to not just quell the virus but eliminate it. To do that it has deployed a raft of measures — from border curbs and compulsory quarantines, to localized lockdowns and mass testing — aimed at hunting out cases before an outbreak takes root and quashing them. It was a strategy used successfully in other parts of the Asia-Pacific region, from Singapore and Taiwan to Australia and New Zealand, before the delta variant made it almost impossible to execute.

China and Hong Kong are now the last real COVID-Zero proponents left, as other places look to open their borders and live with the virus. But instead of slowly easing toward reopening, too, China is doubling down, even as waves of the more contagious delta come more frequently and with the current resurgence — totaling some 480 cases — spreading to more than half of the country’s provinces.

People preparing to undergo tests for COVID-19 at Shanghai Disneyland on Sunday. | AFP-JIJI
People preparing to undergo tests for COVID-19 at Shanghai Disneyland on Sunday. | AFP-JIJI

As the threat has become more persistent, so has the intensity of China’s curbs, which are becoming as disruptive to people’s lives as they are effective in controlling the virus’s spread.

While snap lockdowns and ad hoc internal travel restrictions are increasingly being deployed — weighing on spending and consumer demand — some officials are going even further in their efforts to keep out the coronavirus.

A small county in eastern China’s Jiangxi province turned all its traffic lights to red after one case was detected, breaking the province’s 610-day disease-free track record. The move, which local authorities said was an emergency measure aimed at reducing mobility, was decried on Chinese social media, where dissent is typically censored. It was soon repealed and the lights resumed, local media reported.

In Beijing, the escalating restrictions are having farcical consequences. Some residents who leave the capital have reported not being able to come back because they are recorded as having recently been in the city, parts of which are currently classed as high risk because of a small outbreak. Stranded at airports and train stations around China, many have taken to social media to ask for help and to criticize the rules.

Perhaps nowhere is the full force — and increasing absurdity — of China’s devotion to COVID-Zero evident than in the small southeastern city of Ruili, on the remote border with Myanmar. People there have been locked down four times in the past seven months alone. The 268,000 residents are largely barred from leaving as the virus keeps creeping over from Myanmar, where it is rampant.

The city’s former deputy mayor made a plea last week for more support from Beijing, saying it can’t control the virus alone and that constant restrictions were killing small businesses. Over the weekend, local media reported about a baby who had been tested as many as 74 times for COVID-19 since September last year, with mass testing of entire cities and populations a key part of China’s toolkit.

The empty Disney Resort subway station in Shanghai on Monday | AFP-JIJI
The empty Disney Resort subway station in Shanghai on Monday | AFP-JIJI

With a key import conference where President Xi Jinping is set to speak starting this weekend in Shanghai, and the Winter Olympics taking place near Beijing in less than 100 days, China is unlikely to change tactics any time soon — even as the rest of the world opens up. The approach also extends to Xi, who hasn’t left the country since the pandemic began — opting out of attending the Group of 20 nations meeting in person this past weekend in Rome, and climate talks now starting in Scotland.

Zeng Guang, the former chief scientist of epidemiology at the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, told local media in August that the country’s devotion to the elimination strategy was partially to do with inadequate vaccination and the need for “updated” COVID-19 shots. So far, the country has fully vaccinated more than 75% of its 1.4 billion people with homegrown inoculations, and is doling out boosters to adults.

The shots, most from Sinovac Biotech Ltd. and the state-backed Sinopharm, use more traditional inactivated vaccine technology, which has proven less effective at stopping transmission and infection than the messenger-RNA inoculations in use in the U.S. and other parts of the West. Chinese company Shanghai Fosun Pharmaceutical Group Co. has the right to sell the Pfizer Inc.-BioNTech SE vaccine on the mainland, but the U.S.-funded shot is yet to get the regulatory green light.

“As the international situation changes, China will definitely change,” Zeng said. “When the dividend on COVID-Zero no longer exists, we won’t do it.”

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