The United States said Tuesday it had ordered all non-essential employees at its Shanghai consulate to leave, voicing concerns for the safety of Americans in China as the government enforces hard lockdowns to contain Covid-19.

China has stuck to a policy of “zero Covid”, aiming to eliminate all infections through rigid shutdowns, mass testing and travel restrictions.

But the policy has come under strain since March, with more than 100,000 cases in Shanghai leading to a lockdown of the city’s 25 million inhabitants.

The United States has ordered all non-essential employees at its Shanghai consulate to leave over concerns about their safety, an embassy spokesperson said in a statement on April 12, 2022. Photo: Greg Baker/AFP

That has sparked widespread outcry over food shortages and an inflexible policy of sending anyone who tests positive to quarantine centres.

The US State Department ordered the departure “due to the ongoing Covid-19 outbreak”, a spokesperson from its Beijing embassy said in a statement.

American diplomats have also raised “concerns about the safety and welfare of US citizens with People’s Republic of China officials”, the statement added. 

“It is best for our employees and their families to be reduced in number and our operations to be scaled down as we deal with the changing circumstances on the ground,” it read. 

Shanghai reported more than 23,000 new infections on Tuesday, while dozens of cities across the country battled smaller outbreaks.

Community volunteers deliver vegetables to be distributed by local government to residents in a compound during a Covid-19 lockdown in Pudong district in Shanghai on April 12, 2022. Photo: AFP/LIU JIN

Some Shanghai residents who live in neighbourhoods deemed a low virus risk have been allowed outside their homes this week, but unclear rules and the threat of re-entering lockdown if new cases are found have left most in limbo.

Criticism of China’s unrelenting approach to crushing outbreaks is mounting, more so as the rest of the world learns to live with the pandemic

Tens of millions of people are under lockdown across the country, with fears of a staggering impact on consumer spending and the wider economy. 

The European Union Chamber of Commerce has warned that China’s coronavirus strategy is “eroding foreign investors’ confidence”. 

In a letter seen by AFP, it urged the Chinese government to shift its approach by vaccinating the elderly — among whom inoculation rates are low — and allowing people with mild symptoms to quarantine at home.

Analysts at Nomura warned that China has been “facing a rising risk of recession since mid-March”, calculating that 45 cities are currently under full or partial lockdown — accounting for 40 percent of China’s GDP and more than a quarter of its population.

After repeated lockdowns, “many individuals are worn out, unemployed or underemployed, and have drained their savings to a level at which they now have to reduce spending”, they said.

Public anger

Beijing has hit back against the US complaints, with Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian on Saturday slamming the “groundless accusations” and insisting that China’s policy was “scientific and effective”.

Shanghai authorities have vowed the city “would not relax in the slightest”, preparing tens of thousands of new beds to receive every person who tests positive — whether or not they show symptoms.

Residents have taken to social media to vent about food shortages and heavy-handed controls, including the killing of a pet corgi by a health worker and a now-softened policy of separating infected children from their virus-free parents.

On Tuesday, Shanghai residents were still deciphering the details of an announcement that allowed some people living in areas with relatively few cases to begin leaving their compounds.

The adjustment on Monday set three levels of controls depending on the caseload.

But freedom still appears far off for most in the city, with at least one southern district set at the lowest level only allowing residents out once a day to buy supplies.

Chinese social media was abuzz on Tuesday over a viral clip that appeared to show a Shanghai couple pleading with police not to send them to a quarantine facility after they were reportedly misdiagnosed as Covid cases.

Authorities later said “no misjudgment had occurred” on the part of officials.

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