BEIJING: Images of mask-free 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 football-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 (Nov 24), a video of hundreds of Japanese fans going wild at Tokyo's Shibuya Crossing 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-19 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-19 policies.
China's "dynamic-zero" stance, a signature policy of Chinese 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-19 cases not cleared yet?" wrote a user in Guangdong province.
An open letter to China's National Health Commission asked if the country 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 quit...