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China will no longer require a negative COVID-19 test result for incoming travellers starting Wednesday, a milestone in its reopening to the rest of the world after a three-year isolation that began with the country’s borders closing in March 2020.

Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin announced the change at a briefing in Beijing on Monday.

China in January ended quarantine requirements for its citizens travelling from abroad, and over the past few months has gradually expanded the list of countries that Chinese people can travel to and increased the number of international flights.

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Beijing ended its tough domestic “zero COVID” policy only in December, after years of curbs that at times included full-city lockdowns and lengthy quarantines for people who were infected. The restrictions slowed the world’s second-largest economy, leading to rising unemployment and rare instances of unrest.

As part of those measures, incoming travellers were required to isolate for weeks at government-designated hotels. Protests in major cities including Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Nanjing erupted in November over the COVID curbs, in the most direct challenge to the Communist Party’s rule since the Tiananmen protests of 1989.

Late 2022 surge

In early December, authorities abruptly scrapped most COVID controls, ushering in a wave of infections that overwhelmed hospitals and morgues.

A U.S. federally funded study this month found the abrupt dismantling of the “zero COVID” policy may have led to nearly 2 million excess deaths in the following two months. That number greatly exceeds official estimates of 60,000 deaths within a month of the lifting of the curbs.

During the years of “zero COVID,” local authorities occasionally imposed snap lockdowns in attempts to isolate infections. People were trapped inside offices and apartment buildings. In some cases widely discussed on social media, authorities sealed residents’ doors with wires and bolts to try to stop the virus from spreading.

From April until June last year, the city of Shanghai locked down its 25 million residents in one of the world’s largest pandemic-related mass lockdowns. Residents were required to take frequent PCR tests and had to rely on government food supplies, often described as insufficient.

Throughout the pandemic, Beijing touted its COVID approach — and the initial relatively low number of infections — as an example of the superiority of China’s political system over that of Western democracies.

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