World Cup highlights China lockdown blues

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Images of maskless fans enjoying the World Cup in crowded stadiums in Qatar, or bars and streets abroad, have underlined to many frustrated Chinese the difference between their country’s heavy COVID-19 restrictions and a world that has abandoned masks and blockages.

Social media comments from residents of the soccer-mad nation demonstrate a growing sense of isolation among the population, as well as weariness and anger over China’s zero-COVID path to lockdown, frequent testing and closed borders.

In one example from the early hours of Thursday, a video of hundreds of Japanese fans going wild at Shibuya Junction in Tokyo after Japan’s unexpected 2-1 victory over Germany went viral on China’s Weibo Twitter.

“Is it the same world as ours? asked a Weibo user from Sichuan province in a comment that was liked thousands of times.

“Did they do a COVID test? another wrote, mocking China’s testing requirements which in some places are now daily amid a resurgence of cases. “Why don’t they wear masks?”

Comments like these have flooded Chinese social media since the start of the World Cup on Sunday night, a sign that some Chinese feel they have found a safe space to speak out about the country’s COVID policies.

China’s “zero dynamic” stance, a signature policy of President Xi Jinping, is politically sensitive, and direct online criticism is often blocked on the country’s heavily censored internet and can even lead to arrests.

“It’s been three years, aren’t the covid cases resolved yet?” wrote a user in Guangdong province.

An open letter to China’s National Health Commission questioning COVID policies asked if China was “on the same planet” as Qatar and went viral on Tuesday before being deleted.

“My biggest lesson watching the World Cup: no one wears a mask and no one is afraid of the pandemic!” wrote a Weibo user named Wang.

“How long will the politicians keep us locked down? Aren’t we the same species as the rest of the world? Are we now closing the whole country to the world?”

State broadcaster CCTV has spent millions on the rights to broadcast the event, even though China has not qualified for the competition since 2002, its only appearance.

Like other Chinese state media, it chose not to dwell on this, or other politically thorny topics that would emerge during the tournament, such as player protests before games.

Still, frustrations have been heightened by the recent surge of infections across the country, which has prompted new restrictions and closures, even after authorities announced a decision to ease restrictions earlier this month.

In Beijing’s nightlife areas, bars are closed, although a handful have quietly offered secret shows, with fans keeping the TV volume down and their cheers down so as not to alert authorities.

But most people were forced to watch from home.

“The world cup in Qatar tells us that the rest of the world is back to normal,” another Weibo user wrote. “It’s not sustainable for us to maintain this shutdown state.”

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