Baoding, a city in China’s northern Hebei province near Beijing, made internet site Weibo’s hot search chart this week. The viral hashtag: #BaodingOutbreak#.
China is scrapping draconian COVID-19 restrictions following countrywide demonstrations, some violent, demanding an end to the “zero COVID” policy, with its onerous testing, lengthy lockdowns and forced quarantines.
On December 7, China’s health authority sidelined mandatory COVID-19 tests and green “health codes” before anyone could enter most public venues. It also limited harsh lockdowns.
Although many in China cheered the return to more normal times, fears also grew about a flood of new infections. In Baoding, population 9 million, evidence emerged to back up those fears.
Since the end of November, authorities in Baoding had been reporting zero new confirmed cases and very few asymptomatic cases. But on December 3, Baoding residents began flooding Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter, with passionate posts reporting their illnesses and frustration.
Posts tagged #BaodingOutbreak# attracted 54 million views on December 4 alone, a day when health authorities reported zero confirmed new cases and zero new asymptomatic cases in the city.
Hebei Province’s Health Commission didn’t even mention Baoding in that day’s statistics:
“From 0:00 to 24:00 on December 4, 2022, one new confirmed case of COVID-19 (in Shijiazhuang) and 195 new asymptomatic infections were reported in Hebei province, including 146 cases in Shijiazhuang, 36 cases in Qinhuangdao, 5 cases in Langfang, 2 cases in Chengde, 2 cases in Xingtai, 2 cases in Handan, 1 case in Cangzhou and 1 case in Hengshui.”
Given the yawning disconnect with what residents claimed, that report appears unrealistic. Instead, it illustrates how China continues to struggle with appropriate measures to contain the pandemic and track its spread.
Baoding residents took to Weibo to set the record straight.
Some shared pictures of their self-tests showing positive results; some wrote a “Covid dairy” and detailed their symptoms; some described how sick their family, colleagues or friends were with COVID-19-like symptoms; some accused the authorities of lying about the low counts of new cases; some pointed out that less testing naturally means less reported cases.
All of the following were posted on December 7 (identifying information about some posters was obscured or anonymous, likely for privacy or security):
“Nine new [asymptomatic] cases in Baoding yesterday? In my family alone there are 12 cases already.” (Username blurred in screenshots circulating online.)
“My Day Three: feeling less body aches, but still cough from time to time. When I cough, it feels like I am tearing apart my throat…Although coughing and sore throat are excruciating, I heard it’s a good sign to start coughing, indicating it’s entering the later stage of the disease. Girlfriend also got two bars (meaning tested positive) today. Couldn’t escape this after all.” (Posted by Weibo user BaodingCainanChufangCanting)
“No one in Baoding can escape the two bars!” (Username blurred in screenshots circulating online.)
Citing a screenshot of an official webpage listing COVID-19 numbers in Hebei for December 7, with Baoding reporting zero, Weibo user YiGeMeiNüZi posted:
“We all know these are fake, so no need to bury your head in the sand. Feels like 80 percent of people in Baoding are [COVID] positive and we are still starting school?”
Weibo user LoveForeverSunshine posted: “Are we sitting back and doing nothing now? No need to report even if you are tested positive?”
Weibo user MouMouCxxC posted on December 7: “My friends in Baoding are joking today that ‘Baoding is a city with warmth, with 38 Celsius degrees [100.4 °F] per capita.’ That’s a little dark.”
“The lowest temperature in Baoding today is minus 2 degrees [28.4 °F], and the average temperature is 38.8 degrees [101.8 °F],” another wrote. (The person’s username was blurred in screenshots circulating online.)
Polygraph.info looked at each quoted account, except for those in screenshots with blurred usernames. All appear to have been regularly posting about a variety of topics over years or months.
On Weibo, it is customary for the majority of ordinary accounts to use pseudonyms. In most cases, only celebrities, officials and some influencers with Weibo VIP accounts use their real names.
On December 5, following the first wave of posts, an official from the city’s publicity department told a reporter from Dingduan News, a website based in Henan, that “those on the Internet” were “exaggerating things.”
“A lot of it isn’t true,” the anonymous official said.
That comment further angered Weibo users and set off consecutive waves of posts about COVID-like sickness.
Weibo user ChiTongLuoBingDeDingDangMao wrote on December 7:
“My son began to have a fever of 39 degrees [102.2 °F] yesterday afternoon, antigen test showed one bar. Today, 38.5 degrees [101.3 °F] but antigen test shows positive. What comes still comes. If someone still says Baoding outbreak is exaggerated, we’ll show Baoding on Douyin [Chinese TikTok] and let people feel the fever in Baoding.”
As of December 8, 12,000 people had posted to #BaodingOutbreak#, generating 45,000 discussions and 290 million views on Weibo.
In a December 4 Weibo posting, Hu Xijin, former editor-in-chief of Global Times, the Communist Party controlled newspaper, said he had interviewed three people from Baoding, all of whom reported that they and/or their family had recently had fevers.
Two reported positive results from antigen tests:
“After interviewing these three families, my first impression is that there are still many having fevers in Baoding, but many infected people only take antigen tests at home and do not get a diagnosis, or they do not report at all. Therefore, the official numbers of infections in Baoding are relatively low, down to single digits these days.”
“As a matter of fact, this situation has already occurred in many parts of the country at present. More and more people do not take polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests anymore. They do antigen tests at home when symptoms show, but they do not report it for fear of trouble.
“Governments in some places no longer have the motivation to get to the bottom of numbers. Therefore, the number of infections reported in many places is lower than the actual figure to varying degrees.”
News reports corroborate
Chinese media also reported numerous positive COVID-19 cases in Baoding, citing locals they interviewed in the city and online.
Li Meng (an alias) told Dingduan News on December 5 that three of her four family members had experienced COVID symptoms, and that their antigen tests were “abnormal.”
“[We] reported [our cases] to the community, no P.C.R. tests were arranged, no lockdown measures were implemented, [we] just take meds at home,” she said. (PCR means polymerase chain reaction. It is a test that has more reliable results than the rapid antigen tests, but requires a wait for results.)
Kang Shuai (an alias) told Dingduan News that he and his friends in the city had experienced symptoms like COVID-19. His friend paid to get a test in the hospital and was told that he tested “abnormal,” but not “positive.”
Kang said that his friend’s digital health code still showed green after the test and that he remained at home for recovery instead of being sent to a quarantine facility.
As an important part of China’s zero-COVID policy, residents in the country who needed to visit public venues were required to produce a health code on a smartphone app “that tracks people’s movements as users check in at locations and update users’ status if they have visited a COVID ‘hotspot’ or tested positive to coronavirus,” Australian Broadcasting Company (ABC) reported.
The app displays the users’ status as green, yellow or red. Green status was required to access public places like grocery stores, pharmacies, public transit stations and schools.
China Philanthropist reported on December 7 that a resident from Baoding’s Lianchi district who only gave his family name Shi, told the Beijing-based magazine that he and his wife both tested “abnormal” and had a slew of COVID-like symptoms.
They reported their cases to the community authority and were told to just stay home and take medicine for a common cold to ease symptoms, the report said.
Citing Shi, the magazine said that while many in Shi’s community started having fevers since December, they did not panic and stayed home to recover.
“A community director from the Lianchi district confirmed to us that there were many patients with positive results in the community, and many of them had their whole family infected,” China Philanthropist reported.
“It is exactly because of the absence of mass PCR testing, most positive cases are not in the official tally.”
On December 8, The Paper, a Shanghai newspaper, interviewed Baoding residents who had posted their detailed “COVID diaries” on Weibo. Qiqi (an alias) and Xuan (identified only by their family name) said that everyone in their families had fevers and most of them self-tested positive. They all stayed home to recover.
According to The Paper, Baoding is following the latest 10 new COVID measures announced by the National Health Commission on December 7.
The 10 new measures marked the clearest sign of Beijing rolling back some of the world’s harshest COVID restrictions and transitioning to “living with the virus.”
Aside from dropping PCR tests and green health code requirements for most public venues and scaling back lockdown measures, people who test positive for COVID-19 with mild or no symptoms are now allowed and encouraged to self-quarantine at home.
That’s a dramatic change from the previous policy, under which all infected people were sent to crowded government quarantine facilities where, many of them complained, there was excessive PCR testing and poor living conditions.
Top health experts who advise China’s State Council had been encouraging the use of rapid antigen self-tests in place of lining up for mass PCR testing.
Feng Zijian, former deputy director of China’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), had warned that home self-quarantine for mild and asymptomatic cases would be “inevitable,” as cases surge with the loosening of controls and medical resources face exhaustion, according to The Paper.