China ushers in the Year of the Rabbit and most of the COVID rules have been lifted

BEIJING (AP) — People across China ring in the Lunar New Year on Sunday with large family gatherings and crowds visiting temples after the government lifted its strict “zero-COVID” policy, marking the largest festive celebration since the start of the pandemic three years ago.

The Lunar New Year is the most important annual holiday in China. Each year is named after one of the 12 signs of the Chinese zodiac in a repeating cycle, with this year being the Year of the Rabbit. For the past three years, celebrations have been muted in the shadow of the pandemic.

With the easing of most of the COVID-19 restrictions that had kept millions of people at home, people were finally able to make their first trip back to their hometowns to reunite with their families without having to worry about the hassles of quarantine, potential lockdowns and travel suspensions. Larger public celebrations also returned for what is known as China’s Spring Festival, with the capital hosting thousands of cultural events – on a larger scale than a year ago.

“He has never experienced what a traditional New Year is like because he was too young three years ago and had no memory of it,” said Si Jia, who took her 7-year-old son to the Qianmen area near Tiananmen Square in Beijing . to experience the festive atmosphere and learn about traditional Chinese culture.

Nearly 53,000 said their prayers at the Lama Temple in Beijing, but the crowd appeared to be smaller compared to the days before the pandemic. The Tibetan Buddhist site allows up to 60,000 visitors per day, citing security reasons, and requires advance reservation.

Crowds of residents and tourists swarmed the pedestrian streets in Qianmen, enjoying snacks of barbecue and New Year’s rice cakes, and some children wore traditional Chinese bunny hats. Others had blown sugar or marshmallows shaped like rabbits.

In Taoranting Park there was no sign of the usual bustling New Year’s stalls, despite the walkways being decorated with traditional Chinese lanterns. A popular temple fair in Badachu Park that was suspended for three years returns this week, but similar events in Ditan Park and Longtan Lake Park have yet to return.

The mass movement of people could cause the virus to spread in certain areas, said Wu Zunyou, chief epidemiologist at China’s Center for Disease Control. But a large-scale COVID-19 spike will be unlikely in the next two or three months, as about 80% of the country’s 1.4 billion people were infected during the recent wave, he wrote on social media platform Weibo on Saturday.

The center reported 12,660 COVID-19-related deaths between January 13 and 19, including 680 cases of respiratory failure caused by the virus and 11,980 deaths from other conditions in conjunction with COVID-19. These come on top of the 60,000 fatalities reported last week since early December. The statement on Saturday said the deaths occurred in hospitals, meaning anyone who died at home would not be included in the count.

China has only counted deaths from pneumonia or respiratory failure in its official COVID-19 death toll, a narrow definition that excludes many deaths that would be attributed to COVID-19 in much of the world.

In Hong Kong, revelers flocked to the city’s largest Taoist temple, Wong Tai Sin, to burn the first incense sticks of the year. The popular ritual was suspended for the past two years due to the pandemic.

Traditionally, large crowds gather before 11 p.m. on New Year’s Eve, with everyone trying to be the first or one of the first to put their incense sticks in the stands in front of the main hall of the temple. Worshipers believe that those who are among the first to place their incense sticks are most likely to have their prayers answered.

Resident Freddie Ho, who visited the temple on Saturday night, was pleased to be able to attend the event in person.

“I hope to place the first incense stick and pray that the new year will bring world peace, that Hong Kong’s economy will prosper, that the pandemic will go away from us, and that we can all live normal lives,” said Ho. “I believe this is what everyone wishes for.”

Meanwhile, crowds praying for good fortune at the historic Longshan Temple in Taipei, Taiwan’s capital, were smaller than a year ago, even as the pandemic has eased. That’s partly because many had ventured on long-awaited trips to other parts of Taiwan or abroad.

While communities across Asia welcomed the Year of the Rabbit, the Vietnamese celebrated the Year of the Cat instead. There is no official answer to explain the difference. But one theory suggests that cats are popular because they often help Vietnamese rice farmers chase away rats.

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Leung reported from Hong Kong. Associated Press journalists Henry Hou, Olivia Zhang in Beijing, Alice Fung in Hong Kong, and Taijing Wu in Taipei, Taiwan contributed to this report.

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Find more of AP’s Asia-Pacific coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/asia-pacific

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