Beijing’s efforts to get people back to work in China have been met with widespread opposition from citizens who do not trust government assurances that the virus outbreak is under control.
The problem is most acute for residents of Hubei, the province worst affected by coronavirus. A strict lockdown of the province ended on Wednesday, but many of its 6m residents who work in other parts of China are finding it impossible to leave as other local authorities defy central government orders and refuse to lift travel restrictions.
On Friday that opposition erupted into violence as thousands of Hubei migrant workers tried to cross over a bridge linking Huangmei in Hubei to Jiujiang in neighbouring Jiangxi province. Video footage posted online showed police officers from Jiujiang and Huangmei wrestling with each other and hundreds of people attacking police and overturning their vehicles.
Hours after the incident took place, police from Jiujiang and Huangmei issued statements online, which were deleted shortly afterwards, accusing each other of causing trouble.
A commentary subsequently published in the People’s Daily, the mouthpiece of the Communist party, that “some places are discriminating against Hubei people without purpose” was condemned online on Sunday, suggesting that Beijing’s plan to end its nationwide lockdown will take longer than it hoped.
Jiangxi is not the only province making it very difficult for Hubei people to return to their employment. In Hangzhou, the capital of Zhejiang province, Hubei residents have to provide proof of employment, proof that the company that employs them has reopened and a welcome letter from the local residents neighbourhood committee before they are allowed to enter.
“People’s Daily should reflect on itself,” said one post on Sunday on Weibo, a Twitter-like service about its editorial’s plea to end discrimination. “It doesn’t deserve the title of a national newspaper by making a fuss when things are not clear.”
The article appeared to spark an even more heated online debate over the weekend with Hubei residents complaining that travel restrictions were in effect still in place when they should not be and Jiujiang people arguing for keeping the checkpoint in place.
It was not clear on Sunday if the bridge had reopened.
The violence on Friday and the sudden requirement for large amounts of additional documentation before people could move around the country underlined a growing distrust of authorities as Beijing struggled to restore credibility undermined by its cover-up of the pandemic that has killed more than 30,000 people worldwide.
The present difficulties faced by migrant workers, said a Beijing-based sociologist, are rooted in fears that the virus remains prevalent, especially in Hubei, even though official statistics have been showing zero new cases of infection in the province for many days.
Authorities are unlikely to be able to reassure Chinese citizens because authorities only test those with symptoms, which means official statistics are unable to capture asymptomatic virus carriers.
“We have paid a steep price for believing in the government,” said the academic. “Now people would rather overreact than not act to protect against the virus.”
Some Jiangxi residents would agree. “Self protection is a human instinct,” said a local resident in Jiujiang city about the incident in a post on Weibo.