Lunar New Year reunites China's families but atmosphere remains muted

Zero-Covid measures lifted as millions travel from the cities to their towns and villages

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China celebrated its first Lunar New Year largely without Covid-19 restrictions this week, with crowds visiting temples and meeting up with family.

Millions flew from cities to their home villages and towns to ring in the Year of the Rabbit, but some celebrations were smaller than before the pandemic.

Nearly 53,000 offered prayers at Beijing’s Lama Temple but the crowds appeared to be smaller compared to pre-pandemic days. The Tibetan Buddhist site allows up to 60,000 visitors a day, citing safety reasons, and requires an advance reservation.

Throngs of residents and tourists swarmed pedestrian streets in Qianmen, enjoying snacks from barbecue and New Year rice cake stands. Some children wore traditional Chinese rabbit hats. Others held blown sugar or marshmallows shaped like rabbits.

At Taoranting Park, there was no sign of the usual bustling New Year food stalls despite its walkways being decorated with traditional Chinese lanterns. A popular temple fair at Badachu Park that was suspended for three years will be back this week, but similar events at Ditan Park and Longtan Lake Park have yet to return.

The world's largest migration of people, the expected Lunar New Year travel sparked fears of a Covid wave, just months after the government lifted strict measures to prevent the spread of the disease.

Under pressure after widespread protests against the zero-covid policy, which involved prolonged lockdowns and quarantines for close contacts of those with the illness, restrictions were lifted in early December.

Chinese President Xi Jinping said he was "concerned" that Lunar New Year travel could spark Covid outbreaks in rural areas.

Independent British-based forecasting firm Airfinity said up to 36,000 people could die each day from Covid in China after the travel boom, which travel agencies said could involve two billion trips made in 40 days.

One Beijing resident said she hoped the Year of the Rabbit would bring "health to everyone".

"I think this wave of the pandemic is gone," the 57-year-old, who only gave her last name, Fang, told Reuters. "I didn’t get the virus, but my husband and everyone in my family did. I still think it's important to protect ourselves."

In Wuhan, where the disease was first detected in 2019, residents mourned the dead.

"I have friends and family who passed away during this time," a 54-year-old who would only give his surname, Zhang, told AFP as he clutched a bunch of chrysanthemums, which symbolise grief in Chinese culture.

But celebrations were also under way.

People watch a traditional lion and dragon dance performance during the first day of Spring Festival in Han Kou Li in Wuhan, Hubei Province, China. Getty

Multicoloured lanterns and pennants adorned the city's Jianghan commercial district and a banner with a heart read "I love Wuhan".

An elderly man struggled to pedal his bicycle loaded with packages and food, while a couple with a toddler squeezed on to a scooter on their way back from the shops.

"Of course, it's way better after opening up," one woman, who gave her last name as Zhu, told AFP as she bought decorative flowers.

"Now, since everyone has had Covid already, we can properly have a good Chinese New Year. So that makes us quite happy."

He explained that the New Year's custom in Hubei province, of which Wuhan is the capital, is to visit the homes of people who recently died to give flowers and burn incense as an offering.

At the stroke of midnight, many residents did just that, as street vendors did a brisk business of selling chrysanthemums and other offerings into the early hours of Sunday.

The mass movement of people during the holiday period may spread the pandemic, boosting infections in some areas, but a second Covid wave is unlikely in the near term, Wu Zunyou, chief epidemiologist at the China Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, said on Saturday.

The possibility of a big Covid rebound in China over the next two or three months is remote as 80 per cent of people have been infected, Wu said.

Outside China, Lunar New Year celebrations in California were hit by tragedy when nine people were shot dead after a party in Los Angeles' Monterey Park on Saturday.

Updated: January 22, 2023, 12:23 PM