BEIJING, Nov. 24 (Reuters) – Images of maskless fans enjoying the World Cup in crowded stadiums in Qatar or bars and streets abroad have left many frustrated Chinese the difference between their country’s severe COVID-19 curbs and a world moving on has, made clear by masks and lockdowns.
Social media comments from people in the football-loving nation show a growing sense of isolation among the population, as well as fatigue and anger at China’s embarked on zero-COVID path of lockdowns, frequent testing and closed borders.
In one example from the early hours of Thursday, a video of hundreds of Japanese fans frolicking after Japan’s unexpected 2-1 win over Germany at Tokyo’s Shibuya Junction went viral on China’s Twitter-like Weibo.
“Is this the same world as ours?” asked a Weibo user from Sichuan province in a comment that was liked thousands of times.
“Did you take a COVID test?” wrote another, mocking testing requirements in China, which in some places are now daily amid a resurgence of cases. “Why aren’t they wearing masks?”
Comments like these have flooded Chinese social media since the start of the World Cup on Sunday night, a sign some Chinese feel they have found a safe space to vent about the country’s COVID policies.
China’s “dynamic zero” 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 arrest.
“It’s been three years, are there any covid cases still unsolved?” wrote a user in Guangdong province.
An open letter to China’s National Health Commission questioning COVID guidelines asked if China was “on the same planet” as Qatar and went viral on Tuesday before being deleted.
“My biggest takeaway from the World Cup is that nobody is wearing a mask and nobody is scared of the pandemic!” wrote a Weibo user surnamed Wang.
“How long will politics keep us in lockdown? Aren’t we the same species as the rest of the world? Are we shutting the whole country off from the world now?”
Many calls for a reopening have come from the urban middle class, but views on zero-COVID differ significantly, China monitors told Reuters.
“There are also people living in small towns who are still quite afraid of the virus and are heavily influenced by China’s propaganda narrative depicting the situation abroad as a failure,” said Fang Kecheng, a China media researcher at China University of Hong Kong.
State broadcaster CCTV has spent millions of dollars for the rights to broadcast the event, despite China having not qualified for the competition since 2002, its only appearance.
Like other Chinese state media, it has chosen not to cover this issue, or any other politically sensitive issues that will arise during the tournament, such as player protests before matches.
But the frustration has been compounded by the recent wave of infections across the country, which has prompted new restrictions and lockdowns, even after authorities announced a move to ease restrictions earlier this month.
Bars are closed in Beijing’s nightlife districts, although a handful have offered clandestine shows, with fans keeping TV volumes and cheers low so as not to alarm authorities.
But most people were forced to watch from home.
“The World Cup in Qatar shows us that the rest of the world has returned to normal,” wrote another Weibo user. “It is not sustainable for us to maintain this state of shutdown.”
Reporting by Martin Quin Pollard; Additional coverage by newsrooms in Beijing and Shanghai; Edited by Tony Munroe and David Holmes
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