When a handful of new coronavirus cases materialized this month in a province surrounding Beijing — apparently spread at a village wedding party — the Chinese authorities bolted into action.
They locked down two cities with more than 17 million people, Shijiazhuang and Xingtai. They ordered a testing regime of nearly every resident there, which was completed in a matter of days.
They shut down transportation and canceled weddings, funerals and, most significantly, a provincial Communist Party conference.
By this week, the lockdowns had expanded to include another city on the edge of Beijing, Langfang, as well as a county in Heilongjiang, a northeastern province. Districts in Beijing itself, the Chinese capital, also shut down.
More than 22 million people in all have been ordered to remain inside their homes — double the number affected last January when China’s central government locked down Wuhan, the central city where the virus was first reported, in a move that was then seen as extraordinary.
The flare-ups remain small compared with the devastation facing other countries, but still threaten to undercut the success that the country’s Communist Party has had in subduing the virus, allowing its economy to surge back after last year’s slump and its people to return to something close to normal lives.
The urgency of the government’s current response stands in contrast to that of officials in Wuhan last year who feared a backlash if they disclosed the mysterious new illnesses then emerging. Local officials there had gone ahead with a Communist Party conference like the one now canceled in Hebei, despite knowing the risk of the disease spreading among people.
Since Wuhan, the authorities have created a playbook that mobilizes party cadres to quickly respond to new outbreaks by sealing off neighborhoods, conducting widespread testing and quarantining large groups.
China, a country of 1.4 billion people, has reported an average of 109 new cases a day over the past week, according to a New York Times database. Those would be welcome numbers in countries experiencing far worse — including the United States, which is averaging more than 250,000 new cases a day — but they are the worst in China since last summer.