China’s ‘city of the future’ has been under a secret COVID lockdown

January 28, 2022, 10:54 AM UTC

Since Monday, China’s northern city of Xiong’an has been under intensive lockdown after authorities discovered five COVID-19 cases in the city. Lockdowns are commonplace in COVID-zero China, but there’s one oddity about the Xiong’an restrictions—few people outside of the city, and even some within it, appeared to know it was happening.

The German outlet Die Zeit reported on Thursday that Xiong’an, a city of 1.3 million people less than an hour’s drive away from Beijing, had gone into lockdown on Monday without any official government announcements, news reports, or pronouncements on social media.

“We expect this [lockdown] to last around a week, but the exact timing is uncertain,” a government official said to AFP on Friday, confirming Xiong’an’s lockdown.

Instead, authorities set up roadblocks in the city and told people that they had to go into home quarantine. Die Zeit reports that some city residents received messages on Monday from anonymous accounts on WeChat, a social messaging app, telling them that the city would be under lockdown for the next seven days.

Meanwhile, officers showed up at restaurants and shops and told owners they had to close their businesses for one week. Yet some residents say they did not know a lockdown was happening until after authorities shut down the city, according to Die Zeit.

Recently, in places like Xi’an and Tianjin, city authorities publicly communicated lockdown orders via city websites, official government social media feeds, and state-backed media outlets. Xiong’an authorities made no such public proclamations and there was no hint of the lockdown reported in Chinese media, with city authorities relying instead on word-of-mouth efforts and nonofficial forms of communication.

Officials may have been keeping Xiong’an’s lockdown under wraps due to the city’s unique status within China and the sensitive timing because of the upcoming 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics.

Xiong’an is China’s newest city, often dubbed the country’s city of the future, but until recently it was just a rural backwater near Beijing. On April 1, 2017, Chinese President Xi Jinping designated three sparsely populated, agricultural counties as “Xiong’an New Area,” and workers started breaking ground on building infrastructure like railroads shortly thereafter.

At the time, the Xiong’an project seemed aimed at helping relieve an increasingly crowded and congested Beijing, which is one of the largest cities in the world with 21.5 million residents. China’s government said it would move all “non-capital functions” from Beijing to Xiong’an, which includes some state-owned enterprises, less-critical government offices, and research facilities.

But Xi has greater goals for the city than just housing Beijing’s overflow. China’s government has elevated the project to a new matter of “national significance” and announced plans to create a futuristic and sustainable metropolis that would become a magnet for cutting-edge technology companies.

China committed an estimated $580 billion to Xiong’an, and major infrastructure projects like a brand-new train station, thousands of apartment blocks, and shopping centers have helped attract over 1 million people to move to the city. (In China, a city with 1 million people is quite small. Four of Beijing’s 16 districts, for example, have larger populations.)

Analysts said that Xiong’an would provide Xi with a metropolis to burnish his own legacy, similar to how former Chinese President Deng Xiaoping is credited with developing the southern city of Shenzhen and Shanghai’s Pudong district into the business hubs they are today.

But Xiong’an’s growth may not prove as organic as cities like Shenzhen or Shanghai. Last year, the Financial Times reported that Chinese firms have been reluctant to move their offices there amid construction delays. Xiong’an’s proximity to power players in Beijing may be a selling point for the city, but critics of the urban project also say the city is built on marshes and wasteland and has little hope of becoming an economic engine in China due to being far from the sea.

Xiong’an’s uncertain future and importance to China’s central government may have contributed to the secrecy of its lockdown. But that explanation has not satisfied every expert.

Eric Hundman, a political scientist at New York University in Shanghai, points out that authorities in nearby Beijing, the country’s capital and home to its political establishment, have been public about measures they’ve taken to stamp out the spread of COVID-19, making Xiong’an’s hush-hush lockdown even more puzzling.

On Thursday, Beijing reported eight new COVID-19 cases, a sign that the Omicron outbreak that infected dozens of people since Jan. 15 may be dwindling. Beijing has not locked down the entire city amid its outbreak, but people in some neighborhoods with COVID transmission are still under stay-at-home orders as authorities carry out mass testing campaigns.

The Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics, meanwhile, are set to start on Feb. 4, and Chinese officials may be under pressure to keep any COVID-19 cases and containment measures under wraps to showcase the country’s success in largely keeping the virus at bay.

But the cases in Beijing and the rise of the Omicron variant already appear to be concerning Beijing officials. The Games’ organizers recently announced that domestic fans will be mostly barred from attending events.

Athletes and other Olympics-related staff are now slowly trickling into Beijing. Over 100 people connected to the Games have tested positive for COVID-19 so far. China is hoping that it can keep its Olympics bubble, which segregates participants from the Chinese public, completely sealed. Otherwise more—potentially secretive—lockdowns may hit China in coming weeks.

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