BEIJING -- Some residents of Shanghai were allowed out of their homes as the city of 25 million eased a two-week-old shutdown Tuesday after videos posted online showed what was said to be people who ran out of food breaking into a supermarket and shouting appeals for help.
About 6.6 million people will be allowed to leave their homes, but some must stay in their own neighborhoods, according to the online news outlet The Paper. The government said some markets and pharmacies also would reopen.
The abrupt closure of most businesses and orders to stay home left the public fuming about a lack of access to food and medicine. People who test positive for the virus are forced into sprawling temporary quarantine facilities criticized by some as crowded and unsanitary.
Meanwhile, the American government announced all “non-emergency U.S. government employees” would be withdrawn from its Shanghai Consulate. A foreign ministry spokesman defended China's handling of the outbreak and accused Washington of politicizing its evacuation.
The unusual severity of Shanghai’s shutdown starting March 28 appeared to be driven as much by politics as by public health concerns.
The struggle in China’s richest city is an embarrassment during a politically sensitive year when President Xi Jinping is expected to try to break with tradition and award himself a third five-year term as leader of the ruling Communist Party.
China’s case numbers are relatively low, but the ruling party is enforcing a “zero-tolerance” strategy that has suspended access to major cities to isolate every infected person. Some local officials were fired after being accused of failing to act aggressively enough.
The government reported 24,659 new cases through midnight Monday, including 23,387 with no symptoms. That included 23,346 in Shanghai, only 998 of whom had symptoms.
In Shanghai, more than 200,000 cases but no deaths have been reported in the latest wave of infections.
The government eased restrictions by announcing residents of areas with no cases for at least two weeks can leave their homes starting Tuesday. It said they could go to any other area that also had no new cases during that time but were urged to stay home when possible.
Such “prevention areas” have about 4.8 million people, The Paper reported, citing city officials. It said all but 500,000 of those were in less densely crowded suburbs.
An additional 1.8 million people in “control areas” with no new cases in the past week are allowed out but can't leave their neighborhoods, the report said.
Another 15 million people in “quarantine areas” that have had infections in the past week still are barred from leaving their homes. The report gave no indication of the status of the remaining 3.4 million people in the official population.
The abrupt shutdown caught Shanghai households by surprise and prompted complaints they were left without access to food or medicine and were unable to look after elderly relatives who lived alone.
The government distributed packages of vegetables and other food for a few days at least twice to some households. Others said they received nothing.
A video that circulated online Saturday showed what the caption said were people in the Songjiang district breaking into a supermarket and carrying away cartons of food.
Another showed people thrusting their fists into the air in front of what appeared to be government employees wearing hooded white protective suits. A third showed what it said were apartment dwellers, barred from going outside, shouting appeals for help out their windows.
The Associated Press was unable to find the source of the videos or verify when and where they were shot. The supermarket video was labeled with an account number from China’s popular Sina Weibo social media service, but the video doesn’t appear on that account.
The ruling party requires Chinese social media operators to enforce censorship and remove videos and other postings about banned topics. Social media and online bulletin boards are filled with complaints about the Shanghai shutdown and appeals for food or medicine. It is unclear how many others might have been deleted.
Complaints about food shortages began after Shanghai closed segments of the city on March 28.
Plans called for four-day closures of districts while residents were tested. That changed to an indefinite citywide shutdown after case numbers soared. Shoppers who got little warning stripped supermarket shelves.
City officials apologized publicly and promised to improve food supplies. Despite that, residents said online grocers often sold out early in the day or were unable to deliver. Online commerce companies said they added hundreds of employees to increase deliveries.
The State Department last week advised Americans against travel to China due to “arbitrary enforcement” of local laws and anti-virus restrictions. It cited a risk of “parents and children being separated.”
On Tuesday, a State Department statement said the U.S. government decided “it is best for our employees and their families to be reduced in number” due to “changing circumstances on the ground.”
A foreign ministry spokesman criticized the announcement and said China's anti-virus work is “scientific and effective.”
“The United States should immediately stop attacking China’s epidemic prevention policy, stop political manipulation with the epidemic issue and stop smearing and discrediting China,” said the spokesman, Zhao Lijian.
AP video producer Liu Zheng contributed.