Tianjin has emerged as a new area of concern after more than 20 Covid cases were reported there in recent days. Photo: Twitter

China’s government has expressed “serious concern” over a US diplomatic request to allow its embassy and consulate staff to temporarily move out of China to avoid being affected by tightening anti-epidemic measures during the upcoming Beijing Winter Olympics.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry said it did not understand the logic behind the US embassy and consulate staff’s request and that Beijing had protected the rights and ensured the comfort of foreign diplomatic officers in accordance with the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations and the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations.

Global Times, a unit of the state-run People’s Daily, said the US was trying to create new conflicts and divert the international community’s attention before Beijing hosted the Winter Olympics and celebrated Chinese New Year next week.

However, despite the sound and fury, the US State Department told media that the operating status at its embassy and consulates in China had not changed.

China will host the Winter Olympics between February 4 and 20 amid rising Covid-19 infections. Early this month, hundreds of Omicron and Delta cases were identified in nearby Henan province and Tianjin city, causing Beijing to strengthen its anti-epidemic measures in line with its “zero-Covid” policy.

The three places, as well as many other Chinese cities, have also discouraged unnecessary interprovincial travel in an effort to reduce transmissions. Since January 4, Beijing has set up a “closed-loop system” to manage the daily activities of thousands of foreign athletes, journalists and operating staff.

As of January 22, 72 of the 2,586 newly-arrived foreign operating staff of the Winter Olympics had tested positive within the loop, while none of the 171 foreign athletes and officials had been infected.

Next month’s Beijing Olympics risk becoming a super-spreader event but authorities are deploying ‘zero Covid’ measures to prevent and contain any outbreaks among the participants. Image: Getty / AFP

Beijing’s Center for Diseases Control and Prevention said Wednesday that the capital city had recorded a total of 75 local Covid cases – six Omicron and 69 Delta cases – since January 15.

It said in the 24 hours ending at 4 pm on Wednesday, six people with the Delta variant were identified in Beijing, with two being asymptomatic.

On January 18, Pang Xinghuo, a deputy director of Beijing’s Center for Disease Prevention and Control, said a letter sent from Canada to a woman in Beijing had tested positive for the coronavirus.

Pang said mail in the same batch but destined for another address had also tested positive. He added that people should wear masks and gloves when opening letters and packages. However, the Canadian postal service and the World Health Organization said the risk of transmission through the post was very low.

Xu Hejian, a spokesperson for the Beijing municipal government, told a media briefing on January 27 that all those who had been in contact with infected people had to be isolated based on a principle of “not skipping any one of them,” while investigations would be launched if there were any loopholes.

Xu said restaurants and cold-chain businesses in Beijing’s Fengtai district that had virus outbreaks had to be locked down, while hospitals, pharmacies and medical clinics in the district were under close monitoring.

On Wednesday, the Global Times reported that the US State Department was considering allowing its China-based embassy and consulate staff to return to the US due to China’s tightening anti-epidemic measures.

Citing several Chinese academics, the government mouthpiece said the withdrawal of US embassy officers was another smear campaign against China after announcing last month a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics.

The National Speed Skating Oval, built on Beijing’s Olympic Green for the Winter Olympics. Photo: AFP / Li Kaixiang / Imaginechina

It said the US would continue to use “dirty tricks” in the coming months while Beijing is also scheduled to hold the Winter Paralympic Games between March 4 and 13.

Lu Xiang, an affiliate of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, was quoted in the report as saying the US was trying to create “illusions of crisis” to suppress China as well as Russia.

The operating status at the US embassy and consulates in China had not changed, a spokesperson for the US State Department said in a statement released to the media. “Any change in operating status of this nature would be predicated solely on the health, safety and security of our colleagues and their family members,” said the spokesperson.

The US diplomatic mission in China had formally requested the State Department to grant American diplomats “authorized departure,” an option to leave China for a period of time until they feel safe to return but the request had not yet been approved by the State Department, sources told CNN.

Unnamed sources told Reuters that some embassy staff were upset that the US government had been unwilling or unable to exempt American officials from strict quarantine measures in China.

The US embassy recently conducted an internal survey which showed that as many as 25% of staff and family members would leave China as soon as possible as they were worried they would be forcibly sent to quarantine camps and separated from their children.

Last September, a video of a 4-year-old Chinese child infected with Covid-19, separated from his parents and placed into quarantine alone in the city of Putian in Fujian province, went viral on the internet.

The video was originally published as propaganda to show that young children were properly taken care of at medical and quarantine centers, but it received negative comments from netizens, who said young children should not be separated from their parents.

Staff from the US embassy in Beijing fear being sent to quarantine camps and their families separated. Photo: WikiCommons

On Wednesday, China’s Foreign Ministry expressed “serious concern and dissatisfaction” over the US embassy’s request and questioned the logic behind the decision.

“China’s epidemic control and prevention measures are precise and scientific. They are effective and have protected foreign citizens in China,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said in a media briefing in Beijing.

“China is undoubtedly the safest country in the world right now. Evacuating from the safest place will only greatly increase the risk of those US personnel getting infected.”

Hu Xijin, a commentator and former editor-in-chief of the Global Times, wrote an article saying it was ridiculous that the US, which reported 790,000 Covid cases per day, urged its officers to go home from China, which had zero deaths and only 18 local infections per day.

Hu said the US exposed its “evil” intention to disrupt the Winter Olympics and smear China’s “zero local infection” policy.

Read: China’s ‘closed-loop’ aims to avoid an Omicron Olympics

Follow Jeff Pao on Twitter at @jeffpao3