More people ride the subway in China’s biggest cities as Covid starts to peak

Nearly a dozen major Chinese cities are reporting a recovery in subway use, a sign that an “exit wave” of Covid infections may have peaked in some urban areas.

More and more people are taking the subway in 11 of China’s biggest cities, with Shanghai, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, and Nanjing among the latest metropolises to report a rebound in trips over the last week. This comes after places such as Beijing, Zhengzhou and Chongqing, which had already seen subway usage and traffic congestion increasing from a trough reached around mid-December.

Covid cases started soaring across the country from early December after the government suddenly dropped movement restrictions and testing requirements. The reopening initially caused a slump in activity as people stayed home sick or to try and avoid getting sick, but the subway data suggests the worst may be over for some urban areas.

The rise is evidence to support an official statement on Sunday that the Covid outbreak has peaked in the southern manufacturing hub of Guangzhou, where the numbers of patients at fever clinics have been declining since December 23. Last week, health authorities said infections have peaked in Beijing, Tianjin and Chongqing.

That reopening has led to a spike in deaths, although exactly how many people have died is unknown as there is no reliable data being released. It’s also unknown how activities are developing in much of the rest of the country, especially in the vast rural areas.

The Hang Seng China Enterprises Index, which tracks Chinese stocks listed in Hong Kong, reversed earlier losses to gain as much as 1.9 percent on Tuesday, on course for its best start to a year since 2018. The onshore yuan also strengthened to a four-month high as traders bet on a further recovery in China’s economy.

The coming weeks leading up to the Lunar New Year, a seven-day public holiday starting from January 21, will be an important window to assess how widespread the rebound in mobility is, as hundreds of millions of Chinese are set to return to their hometowns. Trips before and after the holiday have plummeted since the outbreak of Covid in 2020, but the complete removal of domestic travel restrictions means that many more people may try and go to home for the break. 

Although more people are moving around, they’re not spending freely just yet. Moviegoers have slowly been returning to theaters, but the national box office during the three-day New Year public holiday that just finished was only 554 million yuan ($80.5 million), down 46 percent from the 1.02 billion yuan in the same period in 2022, according to data from online ticketing platform Maoyan Entertainment.

And travel was relatively muted over the holiday, with the number of trips made little changed from a year earlier, while tourism revenue was up just 4 percent compared to the same period in 2022, the Ministry of Culture and Tourism said. Tourism revenue was just 35 percent of the levels reached in 2019, while there was only 43 percent the number of trips.

China State Railway Group Co., the national railway operator, aims to transport 2.69 billion passengers in 2023, according to a statement by the company on Tuesday. That’d be a 68 percent jump from the level in 2022, but only 3 percent higher than the 2021 level, according to the statement and official data. With assistance from Jinshan Hong, Lin Zhu, James Mayger and Lianting Tu/Bloomberg.


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