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China rings in Lunar New Year as COVID rules lifted

January 22, 2023

It is the first Lunar New Year celebration since China's communist leadership lifted the country's strict measures to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

A woman wearing a face mask offers prayer at the Wong Tai Sin Temple in Hong Kong
People flocked to Hong Kong's Wong Tai Sin Temple to offer prayersImage: Bertha Wang/AP/picture alliance

People across China rang in the Lunar New Year on Sunday, celebrating the arrival of the Year of the Rabbit with fireworks, family gatherings and temple offerings.

This year's festivities, the biggest since the start of the pandemic, are taking place after the government decided to ease the country's strict coronavirus restrictions.

For many people in China, it was the first time in three years that they were able to travel to their hometowns to visit family without the stress of quarantine or getting stuck in lockdown.

The Lunar New Year, which started at the stroke of midnight, is the most important annual holiday in China. Each year gets its name from one of the 12 signs of the Chinese zodiac in a repeating cycle. This year's sign, the rabbit, symbolizes harmony and longevity in Chinese mythology.

Chinese welcome Lunar New Year

In the capital, Beijing, worshippers waited in queues stretching about one kilometer (half a mile) to offer morning prayers at the iconic Lama Temple. The Tibetan Buddhist site was shut last year due to the pandemic but this year is allowing up to 60,000 visitors a day.

Crowds of people also flocked to the Qianmen area near Tiananmen Square to sample traditional snacks from food stalls.

Visitors burn incense as they pray on the first day of the Lunar New Year holiday at the Lama Temple in Beijing
Visitors burn incense to mark the first day of the new year at the Lama Temple in Beijing Image: Mark Schiefelbein/AP/picture alliance

In Hong Kong, revelers gathered at the city's largest Taoist temple, the Wong Tai Sin Temple, to burn the first incense sticks of the new year — a popular ritual that was suspended for the last two years.

In Taipei, the capital of Taiwan, crowds prayed for good fortune at the historic Longshan Temple.

But despite the return of celebrations, the pandemic still cast a shadow.

Thousands of COVID deaths recorded

China's Center for Disease Control announced almost 13,000 COVID-related deaths in hospitals between January 13 and 19. Last week, the country reported almost 60,000 deaths in people who had contracted the virus since restrictions were lifted in early December.

Some health experts expect that more than a million people will die from the disease in China this year. They have also raised concerns about the mass movement of people traveling during the holiday period.

According to state-run CCTV, 26.23 million trips were made on the Lunar New Year's eve via railway, highway, ships and airplanes, half the pre-pandemic levels, but up 50.8% from last year.

The coronavirus situation appears to have stabilized in major cities such as Shanghai and Beijing following an initial spike in infections in December. But there are fears about people living in the countryside, where health care facilities are poor and vaccination rates among the elderly are low.

Wu Zunyou, the chief epidemiologist at the Center for Disease Control, said Saturday that a second COVID-19 wave is unlikely in China in the near term because 80% of people have already been infected.

China relaxes official zero-COVID policy

nm/sms (Reuters, AP, dpa)