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China will open to the rest of the world after nearly 3 years of closed borders

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

China is reopening to the rest of the world after nearly three years of closed borders. It just announced that starting in January, it'll no longer require hotel quarantines for inbound travelers. The U-turn comes as the country battles an enormous wave of COVID infections nationwide, a surge that has overwhelmed hospitals and ambulance service, even in the capital of Beijing. Joining us now is NPR's Emily Feng. Emily, why this sudden change? Because I remember earlier this year, you were reporting that China was still requiring two weeks of quarantine for anyone who wants to go into the country.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Right. But the difference is right now, China is going through a huge wave of COVID itself right now. And it's also gone through this massive and sudden about face on COVID policy. This is so sudden, just to give you an example, earlier this month, parts of Beijing were still on lockdown because of a few dozen cases. Now China says it's opening up, however, and it just doesn't make sense to quarantine people when you're seeing millions of new cases daily in China already. And this move is in line with how government messaging has suddenly changed, as well. Just earlier this month, they were saying still that COVID was this deadly Western-made virus. Now China is saying COVID and this omicron variant that's been spreading across the country are no worse than a cold, and people shouldn't be worried about it. And so on January 8, COVID will be downgraded in seriousness as a virus. And all you need is a negative COVID test 48 hours before and a visa, if you can get it, which China says it's going to start issuing again, as well, to enter the country.

MARTÍNEZ: Wow. Those are some pretty big changes. China's borders have been closed for nearly three years now. How are people reacting to this news?

FENG: Well, for the most part, people are enthused. So expect a lot of pent-up Chinese tourism to resume next year in Europe, the U.S., Southeast Asia as Chinese citizens can finally travel internationally again without a quarantine next year. International students outside of China who were locked out when China's borders suddenly closed in early 2020 can now apply for visas and finally get back in and resume their studies. And academics and government officials who had to cut off their in-person exchanges tell me they're thrilled they'll finally be able to interact with people in China. It's one of the biggest, most important countries in the world. And these people want to get a sense of what's going on on the ground, especially as politically, China's relationship with the U.S. grew extremely tense throughout the pandemic. And one of the scholars I spoke to who was really excited to visit China again is Neysun Mahboubi. He's a research scholar at the University of Pennsylvania.

NEYSUN MAHBOUBI: In terms of various moments of crisis in U.S.-China relationship, the ballast of having all these students, scholars going back and forth very consistently and being able to share their perspectives in the country that they were visiting and then come back and report on what they found in that country were enormously important.

FENG: Other people in China say they're angry. You know, they're asking online, what was the point of nearly three years of painful lockdowns and onerous testing if China was just going to open up suddenly with very little preparation. And also don't expect a sudden rush of people going into China right now because ironically, it's one of the most likely places you'll get COVID right now.

MARTÍNEZ: That makes a lot of sense. Now, China is dealing with a huge number of infections. So how are they holding up?

FENG: They're not holding up very well. NPR has spent the last month reporting on how hospitals there are extremely overcrowded, mostly from the sick elderly who fill the lobbies and quarters of hospitals we visited because beds there have just run out. The number of sick is so overwhelming that ambulance services have not been able to keep up. And the danger now is holiday travel into January means the virus is spreading from cities to rural areas, where the health care system is often quite poor. And these are scenes I have to emphasize that are tragically familiar to us in the U.S. and to the rest of the world as we struggle to deal with COVID earlier. But what's different is China bought itself time to prepare its health care system and vaccinate its elderly when it closed borders in 2020. And unfortunately, those preparations don't seem to be sufficient.

MARTÍNEZ: That's NPR's Emily Feng. Emily, thanks.

FENG: Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

A Martínez
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.