By Jessie Yeung, Steven Jiang, David Culver and Jennifer Hansler, CNN
The US diplomatic mission in China has formally requested the State Department grant American diplomats “authorized departure,” allowing them and their families to leave the country amid increasingly strict Covid-19 containment measures, according to two sources familiar with the matter.
The request has not yet been approved by the State Department, according to the sources, who spoke to CNN on the condition of anonymity.
An “authorized departure” gives employees and families in the United States embassy and consulates the option to leave China for a period of time until they feel safe to return, but is not a mandatory evacuation under an “ordered departure.”
China is one of the few places in the world still adhering to a zero-Covid strategy, in which it aims to stamp out all cases within its borders.
Since the arrival of Omicron, authorities have seen several outbreaks across the country, prompting local officials to implement mass testing, strict lockdowns, contact tracing and new restrictions on movement. In some cities, people caught in snap lockdowns have been forced to spend days in office buildings and shopping malls until everybody inside tested negative.
A US diplomatic source familiar with the discussions told CNN the request was made after several diplomats and their families expressed fears over China’s tightening anti-Covid measures in recent months, including snap lockdowns and quarantines that could potentially separate underage children from parents.
Currently, the US diplomatic mission in China has an agreement with the Chinese Foreign Ministry to allow parents to stay with minor children in case of quarantine. However, there is growing concern China’s national health agency could potentially override that agreement.
A video of a 4-year-old child infected with Covid-19, separated from his parents and placed into quarantine alone in the city of Putian, went viral last September — highlighting the human cost of China’s stringent pandemic measures.
While there have been no incidents of diplomats being separated from their children, the diplomatic source said US officials in China fear that could change amid the spread of the highly contagious Omicron variant, which could strain the country’s health care system and hospitals.
“People are not scared of getting sick,” the diplomatic source said. “What has people spooked is that Omicron is more contagious and if it were to spike in the way we’ve seen in other countries, it could lead to even stricter and more unpredictable measures here.
“We are not questioning China’s safety in containing Covid, but we do want to prevent people from being thrown into the system should it become overrun.”
On Wednesday, the Chinese government expressed “serious concern and dissatisfaction” over the US embassy’s request and questioned the logic behind the decision.
“China’s epidemic control and prevention measures are precise and scientific,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said at a regular news briefing in Beijing. “They are effective and have protected foreign citizens in China.”
“China is undoubtedly the safest country in the world right now,” he added. “Evacuating from the safest place will only greatly increase the risk of those US personnel getting infected.”
The move comes less than two weeks before Beijing is due to host the Winter Olympics, with thousands of athletes and support staff confined in a “bubble” designed to keep them separated from the rest of the capital.
The US and several other countries have announced a diplomatic boycott of the Games, meaning they will not send government officials to attend, in protest of the alleged human rights abuses in China’s western region of Xinjiang.
As of Wednesday, 10 cities in China have reported local Omicron cases, including Shanghai and Beijing.
Since the start of the month, 42 people entering the Beijing Olympics bubble, referred to by officials as a “closed loop,” have tested positive — including four Games-related personnel who were already inside the loop, officials said on Wednesday. It’s not clear whether they were recent arrivals or if any local transmission occurred within the closed loop.
A State Department spokesperson said the operating status at US Mission in China has not changed.
“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 spokesperson added.
If approved, US Mission China expects roughly 10% to 15% of its approximate 1,000 personnel will leave the country, according to internal polling conducted by the embassy in Beijing, the diplomatic source told CNN.
This estimate does not include family members. Staff and families would be allowed to depart on commercial airlines.
Chinese state media, meanwhile, has fumed at news of the “authorized departure” request, accusing the US embassy of “ill intention” and linking it to what it calls a “string of provocations made by the US recently to destroy the Beijing Winter Olympic Games” — such as the diplomatic boycott announced by Washington.
“Dirty trick again!” screamed a headline in the Global Times, a state-run nationalist tabloid on Wednesday. “Its purpose is not about concerns over coronavirus but more about making public panic, smear China’s achievements in fighting the pandemic, and disturb the Beijing Winter Olympic Games,” the report said.
“What the US wants is when you are preparing for a happy occasion, it is purposely making chaos,” a Chinese analyst was cited as saying.
The last time US diplomats left China due to Covid was during the initial outbreak in Wuhan, when the State Department issued an “ordered departure” to diplomats and their families.
The new US Ambassador to China, Nicholas Burns, was sworn in on Tuesday. He is expected to take up the post in the coming months, but his arrival could be delayed due to the recent Covid outbreak, the diplomatic source told CNN.
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