People in China are shedding their face masks and partying again, with bars, nightclubs and beach venues across the country filling up after months of pandemic controls.
Last weekend, hundreds of Beijing residents attended a music festival on the beachfront at Beidaihe — a location that also serves as the annual getaway for the Communist Party leadership.
To get into the venue, partygoers had to scan their government-designed app that tracks were they have visited, and have their temperatures taken. But once inside the sealed-off resort, they could throw off any thoughts of coronavirus.
“Nobody was wearing masks. It was like we’d all entered a parallel universe and forgot the existence of the epidemic,” said Nancy Lee, 33, an art curator who was one of the festival-goers. “After suffocating at home for more than six months, it was time to loosen up.”
In the capital Beijing, bars and restaurants are becoming busy again. Revellers say they feel they have earned the “freedom to party” after months of strict social distancing from late January.
The mood in China is in stark contrast to much of the rest of the world, where partying has been put on hold because of the pandemic. In many European countries, bars and nightclubs have been blamed for spreading the virus and forced to close.
The return to revelry in China was made possible after local governments gradually relaxed their strong epidemic measures. For the past four months, there have been fewer than a hundred daily symptomatic cases in China, apart from a brief outbreak in Xinjiang province.
Cities across China have resumed socialising at different speeds. Beijing, the seat of government, had the most prolonged epidemic controls. But in many other big cities, such as Shanghai and Chengdu, normal life was barely interrupted.
The reopening of venues will be welcomed by China’s embattled retail sector. Consumption has been slowly recovering from the depths of the lockdown in February. July retail sales in China were 1.1 per cent below the comparable month of 2019, according to the latest official figures, although UBS estimates that in August, sales returned to the previous year’s levels.
“From restrictions [on movement] and shop closures to no restrictions and shops opening, there’s [going] to be a big rebound,” said Tao Wang, chief China economist at UBS in Hong Kong.
But while many middle-class professionals are engaging in “revenge spending” after months of being unable to splash the cash, lower-income workers are still suffering. Economists say China’s economy is stuck in two-track growth, widening the wealth gap.
The most conspicuous sign of the return to confidence in China was the giant pool party held last month in Wuhan, the city where the outbreak originated.
As part of its economic stimulus package, the local government gave discounts for entry to the Maya Beach Water Park, which hosted an electronic music festival for more than 3,000 people. It was by far the biggest event the city had held since lockdown began in January.
It was a release for the people of Wuhan, whose 11m residents were not allowed to leave the city and confined to their apartments for two-and-a-half months at the start of the outbreak. Those controls were later relaxed and confidence returned in June after the mass testing of residents turned up only 300 cases, all non-symptomatic.
“We were surprised to see such a big, rowdy crowd,” said Luo Ling, 31, who along with his wife attended the pool party. “People around us were . . . having the time of their lives.”
Having worn face masks all day, they removed them after arriving at the venue. “I guess there was no point wearing a mask anyway since we got drenched instantly from head to toe,” he said.
Susan Michie, professor of health psychology at University College London, said that for China to have this level of social life whilst keeping transmission low suggested they had the right protective measures in place and a good “test, trace and isolate” system.
“It is a fascinating potential insight into how we could do things differently [in western countries],” Prof Michie added.
After Ms Lee returned from the Beidaihe festival, she talked to friends in the US whose lives have still not returned to normal.
“Our relative recovery is a result of the strong-handed measures China took, after realising it got it wrong in Wuhan to begin with,” she argued. “It was the right approach.”
Mr Luo said he was aware of “bitter comments” from those outside China questioning why people in Wuhan were able to party when they still had to abide by strict social distancing guidelines. There was also resentment on Chinese social media from residents of other cities — some of whom blame Wuhan for its first outbreak.
“I think they just can’t make peace with the fact that we Wuhan people are back on our feet,” Mr Luo said. “We’re entitled to a little fun in life, after what’s happened.”
Additional reporting by Anna Gross in London