Some celebrations, some nerves as China faces COVID crossroads

In Shijiazhuang, queues for a COVID testing clinic snaked down the road and round the corner.

Hundreds of people stood waiting, many for well over an hour.

The reason for the excessively long waits might well seem unexpected, it is not because the testing requirement has been increased, in fact the exact opposite is true.

Despite COVID infections spiralling in this city, testing is actually being wound down.

There is a sense what is happening in Shijiazhuang is a test case of sorts at a time when China is at a pivotal cross road.

The country has adhered rigorously to its zero COVID commitment for nearly three years now. It has established a highly sophisticated network of testing and digitised health codes, and has regularly locked down cities of millions over just a handful of positive cases.

The strategy has meant the number of COVID cases being recorded in the country remains low by global standards, but some are concerned the harsh restrictions are holding back the economy and putting China out of sync with the rest of the world.

And something strange is happening at the moment. Despite cases rising on a day-to-day basis and cities like Beijing seeing record numbers, the expected lockdowns aren't always forthcoming.

People in Shijiazhuang are now being told those who are not vulnerable will not need to show negative test results in order to access some venues. There are also much fewer testing booths.

Authorities there say this doesn't constitute a loosening of restrictions, just an "optimising". They would say they are just one of the first places to implement a new government directive that restrictions should be more targeted and move away from a "one-size-fits-all" approach.

Fear of virus hard to shake

The news was met with mixed response from the public. On Chinese social media, many celebrated, but others are clearly nervous.

Years of public messaging that the virus should be feared, will be hard to shake. It was the key reason the COVID queues were so long - there are fewer booths, but people still want to get tested.

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Ultimately, it's hard to see how less testing won't mean more cases, and it will thus be very hard to see how it's squared with China's rigorous 'zero COVID response'.

From this point, there are only two real options for President Xi's government; drastic overcorrection in the form of harsh Draconian lockdowns, or the virus spreading throughout the community.

Which it opts for, will be pivotal in signalling how long-term the commitment to zero COVID might be.