WHO denies being China centric after Trump’s coronavirus criticism

A day after President Trump accused the World Health Organization of pro-China bias and said he was placing a “very powerful hold” on its funding, a top agency official said Wednesday that the acute phase of the coronavirus pandemic is not the time to hit it financially.

“We are still in the acute phase of a pandemic so now is not the time to cut back on funding,” Dr. Hans Kluge, WHO’s regional director for Europe, told a virtual briefing in response to a question about Trump’s comments, Reuters reported.

During a press conference Tuesday, the president accused the WHO of mishandling the pandemic.

“They called it wrong. They really – they missed the call. And we’re going to put a hold on money spent to the WHO. We’re going to put a very powerful hold on it and we’re going to see,” he said.

But when pressed by reporters, Trump promptly backtracked.

“I’m not saying I’m going to do it, but we are going to look at it,” he said.

Earlier in the day, Trump slammed the Geneva-based UN organization on Twitter.

“The W.H.O. really blew it. For some reason, funded largely by the United States, yet very China centric. We will be giving that a good look,” he wrote.

In 2019, US contributions to WHO exceeded $400 million, almost double the second-largest member state contribution, according to Reuters.

Dr. Bruce Aylward, senior adviser to WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, also defended the agency’s relationship with China, saying its work with Beijing was important to understand the outbreak, which first emerged in Wuhan.

“It was absolutely critical in the early part of this outbreak to have full access to everything possible, to get on the ground and work with the Chinese to understand this,” Aylward told reporters.

“This is what we did with every other hard hit country like Spain and had nothing to do with China specifically,” he added.

Aylward also defended the body’s recommendations to keep borders open, saying that Beijing had worked very hard to identify and detect early cases and their contacts, and to ensure they did not travel in order to contain the outbreak.

Meanwhile, Kluge described the outbreak of the coronavirus in Europe as “very concerning” and urged governments to give “very careful consideration” before relaxing measures to control its spread.

“A dramatic rise in cases across the Atlantic skews what remains a very concerning picture in Europe,” he said. “We still have a long way to go in the marathon.”

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China reveals new cases including dozens of asymptomatic patients

Beijing: Mainland China reported 39 new coronavirus cases as of Sunday, up from 30 a day earlier, and the number of asymptomatic cases also surged, as Beijing continued to struggle to extinguish the outbreak despite drastic containment efforts.

The National Health Commission said in a statement on Monday that 78 new asymptomatic cases had been identified as of the end of the day on Sunday, compared with 47 the day before.

Residents chat along the Yangtze River in Wuhan in central China’s Hubei province on Sunday. Quarantine in the the epicentre of China’s coronavirus outbreak is to be formally lifted on Wednesday.Credit:AP

Imported cases and asymptomatic patients, who have the virus and can give it to others but show no symptoms, have become China's chief concern in recent weeks after draconian containment measures succeeded in slashing the infection rate.

Of the new cases showing symptoms, 38 were people who had entered China from abroad, compared with 25 a day earlier, authorities said. One new locally transmitted infection was reported, in the southern province of Guangdong, down from five a day earlier in the same province.

The new locally transmitted case, in the city of Shenzhen, was a person who had travelled from Hubei province, the original epicentre of the outbreak, Guangdong provincial authorities said.

People wear protective masks as they walk while enjoying the spring weather on April 5, 2020 at a park in Beijing.Credit:Getty Images

The Guangdong health commission raised the risk level for a total of four districts in the cities of Guangzhou, Shenzhen and Jieyang from low to medium late on Sunday.

Mainland China has now reported a total of 81,708 cases, with 3331 deaths – numbers US intelligence agencies have said they do not trust.

Daily infections have fallen dramatically from the peak of the epidemic in February, when hundreds were reported daily, but new infections continue to appear daily.

The country has closed off its borders to foreigners as the virus spreads globally, though most imported cases involve Chinese nationals returning from overseas.

The central government also has pushed local authorities to identify and isolate the asymptomatic patients. At the same time as restrictions in some previously locked down cities appear to be easing, with thousands of people reportedly flocking to the Yellow Mountains and other open areas.

Singapore has reported 120 new coronavirus cases, by far its highest daily rise, and quarantined nearly 20,000 migrant workers in their dormitories.

While the number of daily new coronavirus infections in South Korea has dropped below 50 for the first time since late February, but the country's vice health minister urged vigilance to maintain hard-won gains against the virus.

Kim Gang-lip expressed concerns over loosened attitudes toward social distancing that he said puts the country at potential risk of an infection "explosion" similar to Europe and the United States.

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Where does our China problem go next?

On March 11, the same day it became clear the United States was sleepwalking into a public health catastrophe, Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne went to Washington with an important message.

The US had just reported seven more deaths from the coronavirus, bringing the total to 38, while the country's confirmed infections had soared to well over 1000. After a star player tested positive for COVID-19, the National Basketball Association suspended its season. Sports leagues around the country followed within hours. President Donald Trump addressed the nation, announcing a ban on all travel from mainland Europe. The virus, which had emerged in a wet market in Wuhan, China, a few months before, had well and truly arrived in America.

US President Donald Trump and China’s Xi Jinping. There are two schools of thought emerging about what a post-COVID-19 world looks like. One says the balance of global power will be reshaped forever; the other says the challenges present before the crisis will only intensify in the wake of the global pandemic.Credit:AP

Over at the State Department, Payne had a meeting with US Secretary Of State Mike Pompeo. It was a credit to the US-Australia relationship that the meeting still took place amid the chaos. While Payne and Pompeo agreed Australia and the US were in for a tough time combating the global pandemic, she told her counterpart the outbreak of COVID-19 shouldn’t diminish any of the other priorities facing the two nations. Specifically, Payne said the security of the Pacific needed to remain a priority while the world combated the global pandemic.

It's a similar message that Prime Minister Scott Morrison has now impressed upon world leaders and a warning many in the Australian intelligence community fear will not be heeded. The question is now quietly echoing throughout Canberra: Do we still have the bandwidth to deal with the major geo-strategic challenges facing the Indo-Pacific? Put more crudely, where does our China problem go next?

As China's official COVID-19 curve has flattened and the virus ravages the US, there are growing fears the pandemic could bring these issues to Australia's doorstep sooner than expected. "Coronavirus doesn't remove any of those challenges," a senior national security source says. "It was an uncertain world three months ago, it's a really uncertain world now."

There are two schools of thought emerging about what a post-COVID-19 world looks like. One says this is a transformational event that will forever reshape the balance of global power. The other goes like this: all the challenges that were present before the crisis remain and will only intensify in the wake of the global pandemic.

Certainly, the virus doesn't abate any of the major flashpoints in our region, from the South China Sea to growing Chinese influence in the South Pacific. It doesn't take away from the burning questions of whether to accede to China's rise, try to maintain the US as a regional hegemon or transition to a multi-polar region where Beijing is accommodated but counterbalanced by a number of regional powers including India, Indonesia, India, Japan and Indonesia.

Brendan Taylor, professor of strategic studies at the Australian National University, puts himself in the second school of thought. He has previously defined the four Asian flashpoints most likely to erupt in violent conflict: the Korean Peninsula, the East China Sea, the South China Sea and Taiwan. Professor Taylor believes it is unlikely anything major will happen in any of the flashpoints while the world is in the midst of the COVID-19 outbreak, but rising tensions between Beijing and Washington could bring these issues to a head in the immediate aftermath.

"This crisis has significantly deepened already growing ill will between the US and China. There has thus far been little, if any, co-operation between them – of the kind that we saw during the global financial crisis, for instance – and I don't expect we will see any," Professor Taylor says.

"Instead, their strategic competition will only intensify in the aftermath of this crisis. Henry Kissinger said last year that the US and China were at the foothills of a new Cold War. With this crisis, they have unfortunately now begun their ascent up that very treacherous mountain."

Herve Lemahieu, director of the power and diplomacy program at the Lowy Institute, says a major move from Beijing in the coming months cannot be ruled out, but he is more concerned about the soft power it is exerting around the world. He says Beijing's narrative will be enticing for many countries at a time when the US has "abdicated on being a global crisis leader".

Mr Lemahieu says the Australian government "doesn't want to lose sight of the ball and they're worried the Americans are". "China will definitely seek to leverage off the fact it was the first afflicted but first to recover from the pandemic," he says. "It realises the world and the West in part is now very self-consumed and inward looking, so it will seize the moment in some sense," he says.

"The question is: Does it do so militarily across the Taiwan Strait or the South China Sea, or does it do so through global government initiatives, influencing the United Nations in terms of how the developing world addresses the virus. It is trying the soft power first and we will see how it goes.

"It's plausible China might try something unilaterally – a projection of hard power – but more likely they will be looking at how they can entrench their soft power over global institutions in the absence of the West. The geopolitical world is just as fractured and just as heated as it was before this crisis, but I think this crisis could be exploited by China. It doesn't resolve the geostrategic challenges, but it may very well distract us."

Three tumultuous weeks after Payne's Washington visit, the US now has the most confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the world. The virus could kill hundreds of thousands of Americans. None of this is to suggest the current trajectory is a fait accompli. There are growing doubts about whether China's official infection and death rates can be believed; as the country softens its restrictions over the coming weeks, a second wave of infections could force Chinese President Xi Jinping to reinstate severe lockdowns.

Meanwhile, the Chinese Communist Party's (CCP) outlandish propaganda efforts are falling flat in Europe after Chinese diplomats promoted a conspiracy theory that the US Army brought COVID-19 to China. At the same time, thousands of Chinese testing kits and medical masks have been found to be below standard or defective in Spain, Turkey and the Netherlands.

On top of this, people around the world – rightly or wrongly – still want retribution for Beijing’s delay in tackling and notifying the world of the seriousness of the outbreak. In Britain, the Tories have finally found their hawkish side on the question of China, months after allowing Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei into their 5G network against the wishes of the US and Australia. Senior cabinet minister Michael Gove this week accused Beijing of not being clear about "the nature, scale and infectiousness" of the disease in the early days of the outbreak, while former Tory party leader Iain Duncan Smith urged Prime Minister Boris Johnson to "rethink" Britain's relationship with China.

But there is also growing concern about the rhetoric coming out of Washington; Donald Trump has insisted on calling COVID-19 the "Chinese virus", while Republican senator Tom Cotton seemed to suggest the virus could be a bio-weapon created by the CCP.

In Australia, there will be a renewed debate about our reliance on China in the wake of the virus. The Morrison government is alive to the threat of Chinese ownership of key Australian assets, last week announcing it was slashing a key takeover threshold from $1.2 billion to zero to ensure any overseas bid could be blocked at its discretion. The Foreign Investment Review Board was preparing for a spate of inquiries from Chinese companies looking to take over distressed Australian assets and businesses, according to senior government sources.

Although its propaganda efforts are largely backfiring in the developed world, the bigger threat could arrive when Beijing exerts its soft power on developing nations when they are inevitably met with an outbreak of COVID-19.

A senior source within the Morrison government says Pacific island countries are front of mind in this respect. Millions of people in the developing world are now at risk from COVID-19 and our near neighbours are no different. As its first priority, the government wants to prevent a major outbreak in any of these countries. While it currently has only one confirmed case of COVID-19, Papua New Guinea – a country of more than 8 million people and a history of tribal violence and civil unrest – could be thrown into disarray.

Second, Australia needs to ensure it is there to help pick up the pieces in the South Pacific in the event of a massive outbreak. If there is a vacuum of leadership, the government is all too aware that Beijing will be there to fill it. China is already in the process of sending medical supplies to Vanuatu and French Polynesia.

John Blaxland, professor of international security and intelligence studies at the Australian National University, says the Morrison government has a clear appreciation that its Pacific "step-up" can't be allowed to fail. Professor Blaxland says Australia now needs to double down on the support it makes available to Pacific Island nations so they can effectively combat COVID-19, "not simply out of any moral sense of obligation but from a hard-nosed appreciation of Australia's strategic interests and the growing competition we face there".

He says Australia and its allies cannot rule out Beijing making a huge geo-strategic play in the South China Sea, or even Taiwan, while the world is distracted: "The prospects in my view, have ramped up in light of what we have seen in the last month," Professor Blaxland says.

"China's recent behaviour is deeply unsettling because from what I read from the rhetoric being circulated within China – it is being used as a way of beating up a strong dislike or distrust of others, particularly the West. And it is being used to bolster the Chinese Communist Party's justification for how it has handled things internally, to prop up its own stability.

"There are potential dangerous ramifications from that, particularly with a US president who is so transactional and so thin-skinned."

Mr Morrison last week told a G-20 leaders' hook-up that "our Pacific Island family must be a focus of international support". Days later, amid the first signs that Australia was starting to flatten the curve, he warned about the probability that many countries in the months ahead would "hollow out in the very worst of circumstances" and "fall into chaos".

"This will not be Australia," the Prime Minister declared.

Who will be joining us is an open question.

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China’s President Calls for Cinemas to Remain Shut as Entertainment Goes Back Into Lockdown

Chinese president Xi Jinping indicated that cinemas should remain shut while on a tour to Zhejiang province that otherwise signaled Beijing’s desire to get its economy back on track post-coronavirus, state media said on Wednesday.

His comments come as China’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism has ordered entertainment venues across the country that had just cautiously re-opened for business to shut down again, according to Chinese reports.

Cinemas have been closed since late January due to the coronavirus outbreak. Around 5% of them were slowly re-opening and hundreds more were set to follow until authorities last Friday suddenly ordered all of them shut again for the foreseeable future.

Chinese officials have still not issued a statement on the reasoning behind the abrupt about-face, but in video footage released on Wednesday, Xi implies continued closures.

“Prevention and control [of the coronavirus] cannot be paralyzed right now; continue to refrain from engaging in too many group activities,” he says while wearing a face mask during a work site visit. “If anyone wants to see a movie, just watch it online!”

Given the high level of control the Chinese state exerts over which of Xi’s carefully scripted remarks are made public, the seemingly offhand comment is likely a further indication that the country’s struggling exhibition sector will continue to suffer for quite some time.

Xi’s four-day trip to his old power base of Zhejiang, where he was the provincial party secretary for five years in the 2000s, is his first out of the capital since a trip to Wuhan, the coronavirus’s epicenter, early last month.

Since Monday, he has been inspecting industrial sites there, such as a large container port and a zone for car manufacturing. The official Xinhua news agency said the visit sent a “clear message” that Beijing is shifting its attention to economic recovery and the resumption of business, now that the worst of the disease’s outbreak is under control.

Manufacturing and other industries are of course a higher priority for China’s highly export-dependent economy than service sector pleasures such as cinemas and restaurants.

Xi’s comments continued: “Activities involving large-scale activities such as sports games, especially indoor ones, must also continue to be controlled. And when it comes to restaurants, the number of people should be limited.” 

Just a week ago, local authorities across the country were lifting restrictions on entertainment venues and internet cafes to let them go back into business nearly two months after they first shuttered. But in the past few days, they have suddenly backtracked, issuing an order to once again close everything from karaoke parlors to indoor swimming pools.

Authorities in the central province of Henan shut down all entertainment venues and internet cafes on Monday after a cleaner in a library there was diagnosed with coronavirus. Similar directives to shutter businesses have been issued in regions such as Anhui and Sichuan provinces. In Shanghai, more than two dozen entertainment sites popular with tourists have been shut down again, including the city’s iconic Oriental Pearl Tower, its Ocean Aquarium and the Shanghai Haichang Ocean Park, among others. 

Official figures state that few new coronavirus cases have been detected in China in recent weeks, with most of them being “imported” via people returning from abroad. But the country has come under increasing fire for its handling of its data. Beijing previously had not counted those who test positive for the virus, but show no symptoms, among its tally of confirmed cases.

Chinese officials have said that, beginning on Wednesday, they will begin including these asymptomatic patients — who can still spread the disease — in their counts. As of Monday, 1,541 such cases have cumulatively been under observation.

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China’s Handful of Reopened Cinemas Get the Cold Shoulder From Wary Audiences

China has re-opened a portion of its cinemas as it emerges from its coronavirus shutdown. But they’re far from back to business as usual.

After nearly 60 days of closures, more than 500 cinemas — around 5% of China’s total — re-opened last weekend. Yet without exciting product yet to push, they remain comically empty.

In their first weekend, theaters welcomed on average less than one person per screening and collectively earned a total of just $10,000 (RMB72,000) — not even as much as a single, average cinema might typically earn in a day, or even enough to afford a single square meter of Beijing real estate.

China’s main distributor China Film Corp. has issued several films that cinemas can play via a “public service model,” in which they retain 100% of the earnings without leaving a cut for other rights holders. But with box office figures this low, even this sort of indirect bailout won’t be enough to keep the lights on for most cinemas.

“Looking at things now, all the box office from Q1 was basically lost, and cinemas will certainly not be busy in April. Even if there’s a sudden revival of consumption, box office losses this year may exceed $2.1 billion (RMB15 billion), so the annual box office performance this year doesn’t look good,” industry analyst Shi Yongdong told the China Securities Daily.

About a quarter of the re-opened cinemas are located in sparcely-populated and largely rural Xinjiang. They disproportionately accounted for more than 80% of the nation-wide box office, a feat only possible because the burden of disease in the region has been lighter.

The first cinema to re-open in China, the Xinjiang Golden Palm Cinema, has received no more than 100 people per day, its manager told the People’s Daily newspaper, yielding a daily box office of around $140-280. It has shifted to half days, running films from around 2pm to 7pm.

Some analyses of post-epidemic revival were initially more optimistic, including a survey conducted by ticketing and entertainment service platform Maoyan in late February, for which the firm gathered data from 581 people who bought movie tickets last year on either its own or the Meituan app.

Respondents listed going to the cinema and eating out with friends as their top two choices of entertainment they looked forward to after the epidemic by a wide margin, above shopping, travel or KTV, among other options. More than half of respondents said they’d actually be more willing to go to the cinema after release from quarantine than they would have been before the epidemic, while just 13% said they would be less willing or unwilling to go.

So far, however, this appears to be far from the case on the ground. In fact, the news that cinemas were re-opening has been met with a mixture of criticism, ridicule and disbelief online.

“There are still people who want to go to the movies??” wrote one top comment accompanied by a row of crying facepalm emojis. Another liked more than 10,000 times said, “If a single superspreader goes to the cinema, then spending two months at home and stealing all those masks was all for nothing.”

Others echoed the sentiment of a Weibo user who said: “Although I really want to watch films, at the moment I don’t dare go.”

While people have rushed to visit newly reopened parks and enthusiastically welcomed the news of revived restaurants, shopping malls, and tourist attractions, cinemas are getting a particular cold shoulder.

One Chinese article explained: “Watching movies is just not that essential a need. After the epidemic, audiences still need a period of psychological adaptation. It will take a long time for theaters to fully recover to their state before the epidemic.”

It cited a cinema manager as expressing concerns that there will be a situation where “small films are unable to pull in audiences, but big films are unwilling to release and thus drive business.”

While China Film Corp. has been busy amassing a grab bag of older popular titles for cinemas to re-release — including everything from “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” to Chinese sci-fi hit “The Wandering Earth” — new blockbusters have so far refrained from scheduling any debuts.

This includes all of the major Chinese films pulled from screening during the Chinese new year holiday. A new theatrical release date from one of them would be the surest indication yet of when insiders expect the exhibition sector to get properly back on track.

At a time of uncertainty and economic hardship, calls are growing for authorities to loosen their protectionist grip on content and import more titles capable of keeping turnstiles spinning.

“Even if a re-release is as strong as ‘Wolf Warrior 2,’ it’s not realistic to expect audiences to pay for it. Stagnation may be the next trend,” read a Chinese commentary published in new media outlet TMT Post.

“If you want to prevent downturn during this period, you’ll have to rely on the attractiveness of big blockbusters. Upper levels of [governmental] management must make more efforts and be willing to ‘open the floodgates’ and let them out.”

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China to lift lockdown on Wuhan, epicenter of coronavirus pandemic

China on Tuesday announced it will end the two-month lockdown on Wuhan, the city at epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic, on April 8 – and is lifting travel restrictions in the rest of Hubei Province beginning midnight Wednesday.

“We are celebrating today,” a female doctor whose last name is Wu told Agence France-Presse.

“Every day, we saw the number of seriously ill patients decreasing, the situation improving, people being discharged from the hospital. The doctors and nurses are becoming more and more relaxed as the days go by. I am super happy!” she added.

Beijing barred people from leaving or entering Wuhan, a city of some 11 million, beginning Jan. 23. It expanded the ban to most of the province in the following days as COVID-19 began spreading during the busy Lunar New Year holiday.

The deadly illness raged for weeks in the provincial capital and surrounding areas as hospitals overflowed, and temporary ones were quickly erected to try to isolate the increasing number of infected patients.

The outbreak was eventually brought under control — and Hubei has seen almost no new cases for over a week while much of the rest of the world has seen an alarming increase.

On Tuesday, one new case was reported in Wuhan, a doctor at the Hubei General Hospital, according to CNN.

In Hubei Province, as of Monday, 67,801 infections and 3,160 deaths have been reported.

The total number of cases around the world has exceeded 380,000, with more than 16,500 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University, which is tracking figures from the World Health Organization and other sources.

Starting Wednesday, Hubei residents – other than those in Wuhan — will be allowed to leave the province if they have a green QR code on their mobile phones, CNN reported, citing a provincial government notice on social media platform Weibo.

Hubei had ordered all residents to get the color-based QR code, which acts as an indicator of one’s health status and comes in red, yellow and green.

Wuhan resident Bo Hanlin said he welcomed the news of the imminent lift of restrictions.

“This is the day I’ve been waiting for,” he told CNN Tuesday.

With Post wires

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China Sets Date for Ending Wuhan Lockdown as Coronavirus Threat Recedes

Chinese authorities say they will begin to ease the travel restrictions in Hubei Province, imposed in January to halt the spread of the deadly coronavirus, from Wednesday.

People in Wuhan, the original epicenter of the Covid-19 outbreak, will have to wait two more weeks before they can leave the city.

The easing of the two-month, province-wide lockdown was announced in a notice on Tuesday by Hubei Health Commission. It follows five days without new confirmed cases of coronavirus being announced in Wuhan. Among the existing cases, there were nine deaths on Monday.

Nationwide, China revealed 78 new confirmed cases of the virus on Monday. Of the new cases, 74 were infections imported by travelers and Chinese citizens returning home from other parts of the world.

A similar pattern of imported cases outnumbering local incidences is now being observed in Hong Kong and Singapore, both of which were among the earliest places to be hit by infectious cases that spread out from Wuhan and Hubei.

At a moment when the harsh lockdown and containment measures in China appear finally to have caused a slowdown in the spread of the disease, much of the rest of the world is still at an earlier stage of contagion, and seeing an acceleration of cases. Stay-at-home orders have been issued in parts of the U.S., across the U.K and in Germany.

Wuhan residents considered healthy will be allowed to move around the city and take the bus or metro from Wednesday. But they will have to carry a QR code, which shows the individual’s confirmed health status. As the number of active cases has diminished, the city has already closed some of the new hospitals it has built.

Other parts of China are exhibiting a mixed pattern of behavior. Cinemas have begun to reopen in the remote Xinjiang and Sichuan Provinces, far from Hubei and less exposed to international travel. But Beijing, where 31 of Monday’s new cases were discovered, announced tougher prevention measures. Everyone entering the city will be subject to centralized quarantine and health checks.

In total, China has recorded more than 81,000 cases of the novel coronavirus. The death toll has reached 3,277.

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As Cinemas Shut Worldwide, China’s Prepare to Reopen

As cinemas shutter for the foreseeable future across the U.S. and Europe in a historically unprecedented wave of closures to lower risks of exposure to coronavirus, a handful of cinemas in China have already re-opened and all signs indicate that many more will soon follow in their wake.

“Our cinema is preparing to re-open, but we haven’t been formally told when exactly we can officially resume,” said Yang Yang, programmer at the Broadway Cinematheque in central Beijing. 

“It’s unlikely a nation-wide directive to re-open will come down from the film bureau, because every province and region is at a different stage of epidemic prevention, so the requirements for re-opening will vary. It’s more likely that over a period of time, cinemas will slowly, progressively re-open.”

On Monday, the pandemic reached a possible turning point: both the total number of people who have died from coronavirus and the total number of confirmed cases outside of China came to surpass the tally of deaths and cases inside.

Amidst the virus’s continued spread beyond China’s borders, a handful of Chinese cinemas are already experimenting with soft re-openings.

At least one cinema in the far western province of Xinjiang, where there have been no new coronavirus cases for 27 consecutive days, attempted to re-open its doors Monday. By Wednesday, at least 17 cinemas across China had resumed operations, according to ticketing data resource Maoyan. The vast majority were in Xinjiang, while others were in Qinghai or Fujian provinces.

Business, however, has been extremely thin. The most successful cinema of the bunch, located in Xinjiang’s capital city Urumqi, sold just 371 tickets at RMB30 ($4.26) a pop Wednesday. Six others sold literally just one or two tickets apiece.

These establishments obviously will have trouble making back even their most basic daily expenditures, wrote Chinese outlet Southern Weekend, stating: “It is undeniable that the significance of cinemas resuming work after suspending business for weeks is not whether they’re profitable in the short-term, but whether they can generate new confidence in the industry.”

Cinemas in Urumqi are selling tickets online for pairs of seats spaced far apart from any other occupied places in the theaters to help people continue with social distancing. They’ve also advertised special promotions to entice reluctant viewers, such as deals for a free film with the purchase of two popcorns, or five films to binge watch in a single day with a RMB300 ($42.60) top-up of a membership card.

It would appear that China is still figuring out how to solve the challenge of distributing films to cinemas opening up sporadically in accordance with local coronavirus conditions, rather than simultaneously nationwide, and at a time when no new films have scheduled release dates in the pipeline.

The handful of cinemas currently open have only been able to play old titles already in their possession, with a few of them playing a single, second-run film all day long — making it hard to bring in skittish movie-goers only just emerging from their quarantine cocoons. The Meiya Big Screen Cinemas in Urumqi, for example, has just been screening the the December thriller “Sheep Without a Shepherd” on repeat, while the Pacific Cinema in Gansu province is even worse off, with nothing to play but the saccharine romantic comedy “Blue Pleated Skirt,” which only made $4,000 in its initial month-long run.

Despite these troubles, it would appear that more cinemas will soon come out of the woodwork. Regions currently less affected by the coronavirus around the country have issued statements that cinemas and other entertainment venues like Internet cafes, karaoke venues and bathhouses can reopen as long as they apply to and receive approval from the local government, and then strictly follow health procedures.

The second-tier city of Yantai in Shandong province, with a population greater than Denmark, was one of the earlier ones to make such a pronouncement, issuing such a statement on March 10. Three days later, areas as far-apart as rural Dehong prefecture on the border with Burma and first-tier city of Nanjing in coastal Jiangsu province said the same.

On Monday, authorities in first-tier Qingdao city said that cultural venues such as libraries, museums and cinemas would “open very soon,” while on Tuesday, officials in southwestern Sichuan said that the same would hold true there, given that there had been no new confirmed cases in their province in the past two weeks.

Wang Yan, the director of marketing at Sichuan’s Pacific Cinemas, told a local state-run news outlet that it is currently preparing for re-openings by disinfecting facilities and making sure venues have masks, hand sanitizer, temperature checks and even an emergency quarantine isolation room available for movie-goers once they start coming back.

Meanwhile, things could soon be moving as well in the nation’s biggest metropolises, with one top theatrical exhibition insider telling Variety he was confident that screens in Shanghai would see soft openings soon.

In Beijing, a cinema employee said his establishment had been told by Chinese distributor Huaxia to send its hard drives back so that it could receive a film to screen beginning in April, but was not told which one.

Yet for the time being, theaters in most big cities still have their business on ice. Several theaters in Guangzhou interviewed by Southern Weekend said they had not yet received any go-ahead to resume working. Such decisions are “subject to the notice from the film bureau,” explained one cinema employee. He added, however, that they had heard cinemas would re-open with a mix of “classics, epics and serial blockbusters.”

“The days of the hardcore movie fans are coming.”

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China says all but one new coronavirus case came from overseas

China reported only 21 new cases of coronavirus on Monday — with all but one brought in by travelers from overseas, according to officials.

The sole case of domestic transmission was in Wuhan, the city that was put on complete lockdown after the pandemic emerged there in December, the National Health Commission said.

The drastic drop in numbers in the city — which previously reported hundreds of new cases each day — boosts President Xi Jingping’s claim that the nation had “basically curbed” the spread of the disease.

It also marks a turning point where there have now been more cases reported overseas than in China itself.

The biggest threat now is travelers bringing back the contagion from where it has spread overseas, officials warn, sparking stringent new restrictions for the 20,000 people who fly into China on an average day.

Beijing Capital International Airport has cordoned off a special zone for all international flights, with all disembarking passengers required to submit to health checks.

Transit passengers are sent to their connecting flights, while the rest are forced into a compulsory 14-day quarantine.

On Tuesday, Shanghai extended existing quarantine measures to travelers who have recently visited the United Kingdom, Switzerland, Sweden, Belgium, Norway, the Netherlands, Denmark and Austria.

Nine of the 20 new imported cases were reported in Beijing, while three were detected in Shanghai, raising the total number of confirmed infections from abroad to 143, according to health commission.

With Post wires

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‘A new cold war’: China hawks have built a cosy nest in the White House

Washington: Rick Scott, a Republican senator from Florida, has an A+ rating from the National Rifle Association. As Florida's governor he signed some of the country's toughest anti-abortion policies into law and was an early supporter of Donald Trump's presidential bid.

Ed Markey, a senator from solidly Democratic Massachusetts, co-authored the expansive Green New Deal plan with New York congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Markey has been rated the most progressive member of the US Senate; Scott has been rated its equal-most conservative member.

The two men agree on almost nothing. But this week they came together to introduce a Senate resolution calling on the International Olympic Committee to strip Beijing of hosting rights for the 2022 Olympics.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has called the Chinese Communist Party “the central threat of our times”.Credit:AP

"China’s human rights abuses and crackdown on democracy leave it well short of the Olympic Charter standard that calls for the preservation of human dignity and denounces discrimination of any kind," Markey said.

Scott said: "Communist China should not be allowed to host the 2022 Olympic Games while simultaneously running concentration camps, violating human rights and oppressing the people of Hong Kong."

Their resolution was just the latest drop in a flood of tough-on-China measures that has poured out of the US Congress.

In today's deeply-polarised Washington, agreement between Republicans and Democrats on big issues has become virtually impossible.

The exception to that rule is China. There is a strong bipartisan consensus that the US needs take a much more hardline approach to the rising superpower than it did in the past.

This is reflected in the increasingly bellicose language used by US politicians, cabinet members, agency heads and think tank policy wonks.

Attorney-General William Barr openly refers to China as a "dictatorship" in his speeches. Earlier this year, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called the Chinese Communist Party “the central threat of our times".

In a speech last week to the right-wing Hudson Institute, Rick Scott referred to Chinese President Xi Jinping as "a despot in disguise" and "Mao Zedong with a makeover".

"Communist China does not want to join the community of nations so much as it wants to rule it," the Florida senator said. "The result, whether we want to admit it or not, is a new Cold War."

US politicians are increasingly open in their condemnation of Chinese President Xi Jinping.Credit:AP

Such talk is a dramatic turnaround from just a few years ago, when both Democrats and Republicans were focused on deepening co-operation with China.

"I have been astounded at how quickly the pendulum has swung," says Anja Manuel, a former senior State Department official and the author of This Brave New World: India, China and the United States.

"The consensus during the Clinton, Bush and early Obama years was to try to bring China along as part of the international system, to help make it a responsible stakeholder.

"Now there is a much harder, aggressive line from both the left and the right.

"Talk to the big Democrats about this and they are almost as tough on China as the Republicans."

The centrepiece of Trump's tough-on-China approach has been trade. Barack Obama tried to curtail China's economic influence through the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership; Trump has preferred to use tariffs on Chinese imports to gain leverage.

While some Democrats criticised Trump's unpredictable policy-making style, the Democrats' Senate leader Chuck Schumer urged the President to hang tough with China on trade. "Don’t back down," he tweeted to Trump at the height of the US-China trade war. "Strength is the only way to win with China."

Like Trump, Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders has branded China a currency manipulator and has called for new rules to prevent the dumping of cheap Chinese goods in the US.

Chinese President Xi Jinping welcomed Donald Trump to China in November 2017.Credit:AP

Echoing Rick Scott's Cold War rhetoric, Democratic senator Mark Warner used a speech last year to warn that the US faces a modern-day "Sputnik moment"; just as it risked losing the space race to the Soviet Union in the 1960s, it is now in danger of being overtaken by China on technology.

"We have to wake this country up to what China is doing," Warner told the Brookings Institution.

"In areas like 5G, artificial intelligence, quantum computing, semiconductors, robotics, hypersonics, augmented reality and biotech, President Xi is making a play for first place, and he’s doing it using the model that the United States pioneered into technological dominance in the 20th century."

Anja Manuel says the Washington foreign policy establishment's assertive turn on China began in the middle of 2015. The hardening of views was largely a reaction to Xi's increasingly authoritarian and expansionist posture, she says.

It was at this time that the Chinese government released its Made in China 2025 plan, outlining its goal to become an advanced technology powerhouse. The Chinese military also became increasingly active in the South China Sea.

Meanwhile US business leaders were beginning to grasp the systemic barriers they faced in gaining access to the Chinese market.

A few weeks ago, Republican senator Dan Sullivan and Democratic colleague Chris Van Hollen introduced the True Reciprocity Act, which targets what they called the "substantial imbalance" in the US-China relationship. The aim is to get the US government to treat Chinese diplomats, journalists, businesses and non-government groups as their American counterparts are treated in China.

Pompeo's decree this week that five Chinese media outlets – including the official news agency Xinhua – reduce their US-based staff numbers by 40 per cent was exactly what Sullivan and Van Hollen had in mind. Pompeo's move was widely seen as an act of retaliation for China's decision to revoke the visas of three Wall Street Journal reporters last month.

While a more aggressive stance towards China was needed, Manuel says such tit-for-tat policies are going too far.

"We don't want to 'out-China' China," she says. "Our China policy has become completely un-nuanced."

Spy game

To his friends and colleagues at Harvard University, Charles Lieber looked like the very model of a respectable university professor. Leiber, the chair of the university's chemical department, had won prestigious prizes and published hundreds of journal articles.

Then, in late January, FBI agents visited him at his office and arrested him. A few days later Leiber appeared in handcuffs and prison gear at a Massachusetts courthouse to face accusations of "aiding the People’s Republic of China".

The FBI alleges that Lieber lied about his involvement with the Chinese government's Thousand Talents Plan, which encourages overseas researchers to bring their expertise to China in exchange for research funding and lab space.

The FBI claims Lieber received hundreds of thousands of dollars from the Wuhan University of Technology, but denied being a participant in the Thousand Talents Plan.

On the same day, the FBI charged cancer researcher Zaosong Zheng with stealing 21 vials of biological research and attempting to smuggle them out of the US on a flight destined for China.

FBI director Christopher Wray labelled Chinese espionage the greatest threat to America’s economic prosperity.Credit:Bloomberg

A few days after these charges were laid, FBI Director Christopher Wray gave a major speech in Washington. His message was blunt: Chinese espionage is the greatest threat to America's economic prosperity.

Chinese spies, Wray said, had "targeted companies producing everything from proprietary rice and corn seeds to software for wind turbines to high-end medical devices".

"The Chinese government is fighting a generational fight to surpass our country in economic and technological leadership," Wray said.

"But not through legitimate innovation, not through fair and lawful competition, and not by giving their citizens the freedom of thought and speech and creativity we treasure here in the United States.

"Instead, they’ve shown that they’re willing to steal their way up the economic ladder at our expense."

Wray said the FBI currently has about 1000 investigations open into Chinese technology theft.

Chinese academics and students in China say they have recently experienced unusually long processing delays on visa applications, forceful questioning by Customs officers at airports and surprise visits from law enforcement officials on campus.

University leaders, while accepting the need to prevent espionage, say there is a danger the crackdown will lead to a form of racial profiling against native Chinese students and academics at American universities.

In an open letter last year, Massachusetts Institute of Technology president L. Rafael Reif warned that "we must take great care not to create a toxic atmosphere of unfounded suspicion and fear".

"Looking at cases across the nation, small numbers of researchers of Chinese background may indeed have acted in bad faith, but they are the exception and very far from the rule," Reif wrote.

"Yet faculty members, post-docs, research staff and students tell me that, in their dealings with government agencies, they now feel unfairly scrutinised, stigmatised and on edge – because of their Chinese ethnicity alone."

There have been examples of overreach. In 2015 US prosecutors were forced to drop charges against Sherry Chen, a Chinese-born hydrologist they had accused of spying.

They also dropped charges against Chinese-born American physicist Xiaoxing Xi, whom they accused of sending restricted technology to China.

Bonnie Glaser, a China expert at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, says she believes there would be a slight softening of views if the Democrats seize the White House in November.

A Biden administration would seek to co-operate with China on reducing carbon emissions – something Trump, who calls climate change a "hoax", has no interest in.

But she says there will be no return to the optimism of the past. The age of the China hawks is here to stay.

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