For Chinese soccer fans, World Cup highlights COVID lockdown blues

BEIJING, Nov 24 (Reuters) - Images of maskless fans enjoying the World Cup in packed Qatar stadiums, or bars and streets abroad, have underscored to many frustrated Chinese the difference between their country's heavy COVID-19 curbs and a world that has moved on from masks and lockdowns.

Social media comments from people in the soccer-mad nation demonstrate a growing sense of isolation among the population, as well as weariness and anger over China's chosen zero-COVID path of lockdowns, frequent tests and closed borders.

In one example from the early hours of Thursday, a video of hundreds of Japanese fans going wild at Tokyo's Shibuya junction after Japan's unexpected 2-1 victory over Germany went viral on China's Twitter-like Weibo.

"Is this the same world as ours?" asked one Weibo user from Sichuan province in a comment liked thousands of times.

"Have they done a COVID test?" wrote another, mocking testing requirements in China that in some places are now daily amid a resurgence of cases. "Why aren't they wearing masks?"

Comments like these have flooded Chinese social media since the World Cup began on Sunday night, a sign that some Chinese feel they have found a safe space to vent over the country's COVID policies.

China's "dynamic-zero" stance, a signature policy of President Xi Jinping, is politically sensitive, and direct criticisms online are often blocked on the country's heavily censorsed Internet and can even lead to arrest.

"It's been three years, are covid cases not cleared yet?" wrote a user in Guangdong province.

COVID POLICIES

An open letter to China's National Health Commission questioning COVID policies asked if China was "on the same planet" as Qatar and went viral on Tuesday before being deleted.

"My biggest takeaway from watching the world cup: no one is wearing a mask, and no one is afraid of the pandemic!" wrote a Weibo user surnamed Wang.

"How long will the policies keep us in lockdown? Are we not the same species with those from the rest of the world? Are we closing off the entire country from the world now?"

Many calls for reopening have come from the urban middle class, but views on zero-COVID vary considerably, China-watchers told Reuters.

"There are also people living in small towns who are still quite fearful about the virus and are deeply influenced by China's propaganda narrative that portrays foreign countries' situation as a failure," said Fang Kecheng, a China media researcher at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

State broadcaster CCTV has spent millions of dollars on rights to broadcast the event, even though China has not qualified for the competition since 2002, its sole appearance.

Like other Chinese state media it has opted not to dwell on this topic, nor other politically prickly ones to emerge during the tournament, such as protests from players before matches.

Yet frustrations have been exacerbated by the recent wave of infections across the country, which has prompted new curbs and lockdowns, even after authorities announced a move to ease restrictions earlier this month.

In Beijing nightlife areas, bars are closed, although a handful have quietly offered secret broadcasts, with fans keeping the TV volume and their cheers down in order not to alert the authorities.

But most people have been forced to watch from home.

"The Qatar world cup tells us that the rest of the world has returned to normal," wrote another Weibo user. "It’s not sustainable for us to maintain this state of shutdown."

Reporting by Martin Quin Pollard; Additional reporting by the Beijing and Shanghai Newsrooms; Editing by Tony Munroe and David Holmes

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