China on Wednesday expressed “serious concerns and dissatisfaction” with the United States over reports of an internal State Department request to allow the departure of diplomats and their families from China amid tightening anti-pandemic measures.
Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said China’s anti-virus regulations were in line with international treaties governing the treatment of diplomatic personnel and that the nation was “undoubtedly the safest country in the world at the moment.”
China has pursued a strict “zero tolerance” policy toward outbreaks, including lockdowns of millions of people, travel bans, compulsory masking, mass testing and health surveillance by smartphone apps.
Classes, including those at international schools, have been moved online and travel links between Beijing and much of the rest of the country are suspended. The latest requirements call for testing of anyone purchasing cough, fever or cold medications.
The measures are credited with preventing major outbreaks, although they have taken a significant toll on local economies and quality of life.
“To leave such a safe place would only significantly increase the risk of infection for US staff,” Zhao told reporters at a daily briefing. “We find the US decision perplexing and unjustifiable.”
It wasn’t clear if any embassy staff or their families had departed China in recent days, while Beijing enforced lockdowns on parts of the city ahead of the Feb. 4 opening of the Winter Olympics in the city and its outskirts.
In an emailed statement, an unidentified State Department spokesperson said the “operating status at our mission in the PRC has not changed,” using the initials for the People’s Republic of China.
“Any change in operating status of this nature would be predicated solely on the health, safety, and security of our colleagues and their family members,” the statement said.
A drawdown of embassy personnel is something the US would likely want to avoid ahead of or during the Winter Olympics. Staffing at the mission is being augmented to support American athletes, coaches and officials who are participating in the Games.
However, COVID-19-related drawdowns have been common at US embassies over the past two years as the pandemic has spread, and the State Department takes pains to stress that the health, security and well-being of its personnel and their families based overseas is of paramount concern.
The ruling Communist Party newspaper Global Times portrayed the reported request to withdraw staff and dependents as a deliberate snub ahead of the Olympics.
“Exclusive: Dirty trick again! US plots to authorize departure of staff from embassies in China over epidemic ahead of Beijing Olympics,” ran the paper’s headline on its online edition.
Human rights groups have called for a boycott of the Games over China’s treatment of Uyghur Muslims and other minorities and the US and key allies have announced they won’t be sending dignitaries to attend in protest.
China has brushed off the diplomatic boycott, and Zhao said China viewed the departure request as being politically motivated.
“China has expressed serious concerns and dissatisfaction to the US side in this regard, and we hope the US will abide by and cooperate with our COVID rules, take China’s position and concerns seriously, and prudently consider the so-called authorized departure issue of its diplomatic and consular staff,” Zhao said.
Athletes and others participating in the Games are being completely isolated from the general public to try to avoid cross-infection. Thirteen people who have come for the Games tested positive on Tuesday, bringing the total to 106 among the 3,695 who have arrived. Two of the positive cases are either athletes or team officials.
Those who test positive are taken to a hospital if they have symptoms and to a quarantine hotel if they do not.
Beijing officials said Wednesday that eight people had tested positive in the 24-hour period ending at 4 pm, bringing the total in the city’s delta variant outbreak to 69. Of those, 54 have symptoms and 15 do not.
AP Diplomatic Writer Matthew Lee in Washington, DC contributed to this report.
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.