China’s president Xi Jinping has met Thomas Bach, the president of the International Olympic Committee, in a rare face-to-face encounter with an overseas official as Beijing maintains strict coronavirus prevention policies measures ahead of the Winter Olympics in February.
The discussions on Tuesday between Bach and Xi, who has not left the country since early 2020, included the closed-loop system for the Beijing Games, which is designed to inhibit any transmission of the virus from Olympic participants to the wider population.
Bach praised China’s “efficiency, determination and dynamism” and said Beijing’s measures would ensure a “safe, smooth and successful” Winter Games, according to Chinese state broadcaster CGTN.
The build-up to the Olympics, which Xi said would engage more than 300m people in winter sports, has been dominated by China’s battle to eliminate coronavirus and stop the spread of the highly infectious Omicron variant.
The country recorded its highest number of daily cases since early 2020 last month and imposed a lockdown on about 13m residents in the central city of Xi’an for almost three weeks. The measures were relaxed this week.
China’s closed-loop system for the Games will limit the movements of participants, and authorities in Beijing have encouraged people in the capital to avoid any contact with vehicles transporting Olympic attendees.
Organisers said on Wednesday that 13 cases had been confirmed the previous day among Olympics personnel, of which nine were due to arrivals at the airport but none related to athletes.
Case numbers have fallen in recent days across the country. The National Health Commission’s reported 24 locally transmitted cases on Wednesday, mostly in Beijing and said 2,487 patients were hospitalised, eight them in critical condition.
The daily caseload of the recent outbreak, which peaked at 371 in December, is far smaller than in many countries where health systems are straining under a wave of Omicron infections.
But officials in China are worried about the onset of the lunar new year holidays, which in pre-pandemic years represented the world’s biggest annual movement of people, as hundreds of millions of Chinese travelled to see family. Some local governments have started urging people not to travel and are offering incentives to migrant workers to stay put.
Despite those concerns, an analysis of Chinese mobility data by Japanese bank Nomura showed that the number of trips taken over the first week of the holiday period was about 46 per cent higher than during the same period last year, but was still almost 65 per cent below 2019 levels.
The bank’s analysts noted that “many people have not returned home for two years . . . there could significant pent-up demand for family reunions”.
Additional reporting by Maiqi Ding in Beijing