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China rings in the Year of the Rabbit with most COVID rules lifted

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

Lunar New Year is the most important annual holiday in China. Each year is named after one of the 12 Chinese zodiac signs 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 confined millions of people to their homes, people were finally able to make their first trip back to their hometowns. to be reunited with their families without worrying about the hassles of quarantine, potential lockdowns and suspended travel. Larger public celebrations have also returned for what is known as the Spring Festival in China, 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 looks like because he was too young three years ago and has no memory of it,” said Si Jia, who brought his 7-year-old son years in the Qianmen district near Tiananmen Square in Beijing. to experience the festive atmosphere and learn more about traditional Chinese culture.

Nearly 53,000 people offered prayers at the Beijing Lama Temple, but the crowds appeared to be smaller compared to pre-pandemic days. The Tibetan Buddhist site allows up to 60,000 visitors a day, citing security concerns, and requires advance reservation.

Crowds of residents and tourists thronged the pedestrian streets of Qianmen, enjoying barbecue snacks and New Year’s rice cake stalls, and some children wore traditional Chinese rabbit hats. Others held puffed sugar or marshmallows in the shape of bunnies.

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

The massive movement of people may cause the virus to spread in some areas, said Wu Zunyou, chief epidemiologist at the Chinese Center for Disease Control. But a full-scale COVID-19 surge will be unlikely in the next two to three months because around 80% of the country’s 1.4 billion people were infected during the recent wave, he wrote. Saturday on the Weibo social media platform.

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

China only counted deaths from pneumonia or respiratory failure in its official COVID-19 death toll, a narrow definition that excludes many deaths that would largely be attributed to COVID-19. 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 has been suspended for the past two years due to the pandemic.

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

Resident Freddie Ho, who visited the temple on Saturday evening, was happy to be able to join the event in person.

“I hope to place the first incense stick and pray that the New Year will bring peace to the world, that Hong Kong’s economy will prosper and that the pandemic will drive us away and that we can all live normal lives,” Ho said. “I think that’s what everyone wants.”

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

While communities across Asia hailed 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 cats are popular because they often help Vietnamese rice farmers chase away rats.

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Leung reported from Hong Kong. Associated Press reporters 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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For more on AP’s Asia-Pacific coverage, visit https://apnews.com/hub/asia-pacific

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