A man walks on an empty overpass in Beijing's CBD, in the city's Chaoyang district. Photo: WeChat

An upmarket urban area of Beijing has taken over from Wuhan as China’s most risky area for Covid-19.

Beijing’s teeming urban district of Chaoyang is now the highest risk area, at least according to an official list of cities and districts with significant infections compiled and updated by China’s health authority.

Chaoyang was the only “high-risk locality” on the chart as of Wednesday, leading the list of other “medium-risk” cities like Guangzhou and Heilongjiang’s provincial capital of Harbin, where cadres are grappling with a surge in imported cases from African immigrants and Chinese returning from Russia.

Why Beijing, and in particular its downtown Chaoyang district, has become a new hotspot of the pandemic, when fresh cases continue to taper off elsewhere across China, is baffling to the two million residents in the district.

The numerous diplomats, executives and celebrities who live in Beijing’s most expensive and vibrant district are also wondering if the place hailed as Beijing’s Manhattan is teetering on the brink of a local outbreak.

As an embassy and business district, Chaoyang is the focus of much of Beijing’s function as a capital city, and all quintessential experiences of Beijing as a modern metropolis are packed into a few tiny grids of streets there.

Beijing’s glittering CBD, less than two kilometers west of Tiananmen Square, dominates Chaoyang’s cityscape, where popular tourist haunts, bars and entertainment strips like Sanlitun are also within walking distance, as are the embassies of most Western powers, including Washington’s new sprawling embassy compound.

Beijing’s bustling CBD is in Chaoyang district, but now commutes to and from the CBD and the entire district are being restricted. Photo: WeChat
A shopping precinct in Sanlitun. Photo: WikiMedia

Yet a Chinese student fleeing the worsening pandemic in New York State has singlehandedly turned Chaoyang into a new incubating ground of more community infections after he returned to his home in the district at the end of March.

Beijing’s municipal health authority said the student tested positive after his two-week quarantine at a centralized facility. He infected his parents and another family member two days after he arrived home. His three relatives then passed the highly contagious pathogen to about 60 close contacts through dinners and outings during their incubation period.

Chaoyang has become the worst-hit district in the capital city with a total of 249 cases as of Wednesday. Beijing’s total figure stood at 593.

Beijing officials have scrabbled to contain the spread with measures including additional week-long home isolation for those who have finished their 14-day quarantine and returned negative results in nucleic acid tests.

Chaoyang is also imposing blanket travel and party bans along the lines of the draconian, curfew-like restrictions imposed on the people in Wuhan during the height of the Covid-19 outbreak there.

Beijing has reportedly deployed officers and health inspectors to set up checkpoints along roads leading to Chaoyang and the downtown area is being fenced off in a city that has already been under a semi-lockdown since February.

Beijing’s cadres are rushing to stop outbreaks in Chaoyang from spreading to other neighboring districts, especially Xicheng, where Zhongnanhai – the office and residence compound of Chinese President Xi Jinping, his predecessors and other members of the top echelon of the party – is located.

Now wage-earners who commute between their offices in Chaoyang and homes elsewhere in the capital city wonder if they will be subject to the sweeping quarantine order covering anyone entering or leaving the district.

Beijing’s modernist CBD, where state broadcaster China Central Television and the head offices of major SOEs are located, is now devoid of people. Photo: WeChat
Officers conduct temperature screening on passengers arriving at Beijing’s Daxing airport. Photo: Xinhua
Masked passengers maintain distance from each other on a subway train in Beijing. Photo: People’s Daily
Signs at the entrance to a residential quarter in Chaoyang urge people from outside of Beijing to report to any community checkpoints before entering. Anyone failing to do so will face legal consequences. Photo: WeChat

A Chaoyang resident also told Asia Times that he would refrain from leaving his district as there were ambiguities in health checks and recognition protocols, even among different districts in Beijing, and one of his relatives had already been forced to spend a fortnight at a requisitioned hotel in the neighboring province of Hebei simply because he was from Chaoyang.

Less than half of Chaoyang’s restaurants and grocery stores that are usually individually owned and run have not resumed business. Their owners and staff cannot return without going through quarantine, and local residents are angry about the dearth of food and other services.

Yet the onerous task to tame the virus and the inconvenience and disturbance facing Chaoyang residents will likely continue, at least before the party’s top leadership decides on a new date for the “two sessions,” which have been pushed back since March as the virus wrecks China’s parliamentary season.

Beijing’s party chief Cai Qi, a core disciple of Xi, and mayor Chen Jining have already given a caveat last month that the catalog of anti-virus checks and measures ranging from corralling arrivals into designated centers for quarantine to district-by-district monitoring and travel restrictions would remain for a prolonged period of time.

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