U.S. weighs letting diplomats leave China over tough COVID rules

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Police officers wearing face masks, following the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, stand guard outside the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, China September 12, 2020. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

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WASHINGTON, Jan 25 (Reuters) - The U.S. State Department is considering whether to authorize departures for American diplomats and their families in China who wish to leave due to the U.S. government's inability to prevent Chinese authorities from subjecting them to intrusive pandemic control measures, sources told Reuters.

Two sources familiar with the issue said the U.S. Embassy on Monday had sent the request to Washington for formal sign off, as China ramps up COVID-19 containment protocols ahead of the opening of the Beijing Winter Olympics in less than two weeks.

The sources, speaking to Reuters on the condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue, added that some embassy staff are upset the U.S. government has been unwilling or unable to exempt American officials from strict quarantine measures.

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The rules include possible forced admittance to COVID fever clinics and separation from children.

The State Department told Reuters in a statement on Tuesday the operating status at its embassy and consulates in China had 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," a department spokesperson said.

In Beijing, a foreign ministry spokesman said China's anti-epidemic measures were scientific and conformed with diplomatic treaties.

Leaving China would increase the chances of getting infected, the spokesman, Zhao Lijian, told a daily news briefing.

One person said the U.S. Embassy conducted an internal survey showing that as many as 25% of staff and family members would choose to leave China as soon as possible.

Home quarantine for diplomats should be a baseline requirement, and admission to Chinese fever clinics and hospitals should be voluntary, the person said, adding that the U.S. government should have imposed retaliatory measures for such requirements but failed to do so.

A second person said embassy leadership had failed to get appropriate assurances from China on the treatment of U.S. diplomats throughout the pandemic.

In the early months of the pandemic, the U.S. government evacuated some 1,300 U.S. diplomats and family members from China, and the two governments remained at an impasse for months over testing and quarantine procedures for officials.

China requires foreign diplomats to abide by pandemic control rules like quarantines and testing on arrival, although some foreign envoys have not had to enter government-designated quarantine hotels.

China has quickly stepped up measures to block the further spread of COVID as the Feb. 4 opening of the Beijing Winter Olympics approaches, though flare-ups of the virus have persisted throughout the city.

One Beijing district on Tuesday was set to begin a new round of tests among its roughly 2 million residents. read more

China's nationalist Global Times tabloid called the State Department's consideration of the policy a "dirty trick" intended to disrupt China's hosting of the Olympics.

The United States has led several allied and partner countries in a diplomatic boycott of the Games due to what it says is the Chinese government's ongoing genocide toward Uyghurs and other Muslim groups in its western region of Xinjiang.

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Reporting by Michael Martina; Editing by Lincoln Feast and Clarence Fernandez

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