BEIJING: China's capital Beijing posted a record number of new COVID-19 cases on Tuesday (Nov 22), with the city hunkering down under a tightening chokehold of restrictions that have sent schools online, closed many restaurants and forced employees to work from home.
More than 28,000 new infections were reported nationwide - nearing the record high since the pandemic began - with Guangdong province and the city of Chongqing logging more than 16,000 and 6,300 cases respectively, health authorities said.
New cases in Beijing have also jumped in recent days, more than doubling from 621 last Sunday to Tuesday's 1,438 - a pandemic record for the city.
The last major economy still welded to a zero-tolerance COVID-19 policy, China enforced snap lockdowns, mass testing and quarantines to control outbreaks to great success in the earlier stages of the pandemic.
But the latest spiralling outbreak is testing the limits of that playbook, with officials keen to avoid citywide lockdowns like Shanghai's two-month ordeal in April, which marred the finance hub's economy and international image.
Nomura analysts said on Tuesday their in-house index estimated that localities accounting for about 19.9 per cent of China's total gross domestic product were under some form of lockdown or curbs, up from 15.6 per cent last Monday.
Investors had hoped that China's more targeted enforcement of zero-COVID curbs could herald more significant easing, but many analysts are cautioning against being too bullish.
Inside China, many businesses, especially customer-facing ones, also fear they may not survive until next year as customers continue to hold tight to their cash.
"The real picture may not be as rosy as it seems," Nomura analysts said in a separate note, saying they only expected any reopening to accelerate after March next year, when the reshuffle of China's top leadership is completed.
"Reopening could be back and forth as policymakers may back down after observing rapid increases in cases and social disruptions. As such, local officials may be even more reluctant to be the initial movers when they try to sound out Beijing’s true intentions," Nomura wrote.
Three elderly Beijing residents with underlying diseases died from COVID-19 over the weekend, authorities said, marking China's first deaths from the disease since May.
While the capital has so far avoided a blanket shutdown, there have been widely enforced snap lockdowns of individual buildings and long polymerase chain reaction (PCR) testing queues due to the requirement for a 24-hour negative test for entry to most public spaces.
Over the weekend, authorities advised residents to stay at home and not travel between districts, and on Monday required travellers to the city to test more times after they arrive.
Many tourist attractions, gyms and parks have been closed, with large-scale events such as concerts cancelled.
China declared its most significant easing of coronavirus measures to date on Nov 11, billed as an "optimisation" to limit the economic and social impact of zero-COVID measures.
Among the steps was a reduction of compulsory quarantine times for international arrivals.
Multiple Chinese cities cancelled mass COVID-19 testing last week, but some later reinstated them, underlining the difficulty of controlling the fast-spreading Omicron variant.
Shijiazhuang, which had previously cancelled mass testing, began a partial lockdown on Monday after cases surged, while several districts of southern epicentre Guangzhou also locked down the same day.
The limited relaxation has not marked a reversal of zero-COVID, which has left China internationally isolated, wreaked havoc on the economy and sparked protests in a country where dissent is routinely crushed.