Travel curbs as COVID-hit China reopens

More countries around the world are demanding visitors from China take COVID-19 tests, days before the country drops border controls and ushers in an eagerly awaited return to travel.

From Sunday, China will end the requirement for inbound travellers to quarantine, the latest dismantling of its "zero-COVID" regime that began last month following historic protests against a suffocating series of mass lockdowns.

But the abrupt changes have exposed many of China's 1.4 billion population to the virus for the first time, triggering an infection wave that is overwhelming some hospitals, emptying pharmacy shelves of medication and causing international alarm.

Greece, Germany and Sweden on Thursday joined more than a dozen countries to demand COVID-19 tests from Chinese travellers, as the World Health Organisation said China's official virus data was under-reporting the true extent of its outbreak.

Chinese officials and state media have struck a defiant tone, defending the handling of the outbreak, playing down the severity of the surge and denouncing foreign travel requirements for its residents.

"No matter how China decides to deal with the COVID-19 epidemic, some Western media and some Western politicians will never be satisfied," the Global Times, published by the ruling Communist Party's official People's Daily, wrote in an editorial late on Thursday.

The global aviation industry, battered by years of pandemic curbs, has also been critical of the decisions to impose testing on travellers from China. China will still require pre-departure testing for inbound travellers after January 8.

Some Chinese citizens think that the reopening has been too hasty.

"They should have taken a series of actions before opening up ... and at the very least ensure that the pharmacies were well stocked," a 70-year-old man who gave his surname as Zhao told Reuters in Shanghai.

China reported five new COVID-19 deaths in the mainland for Thursday, bringing its official virus death toll to 5264, one of the lowest in the world.

But that is at odds with the reality on the ground where funeral parlours are overwhelmed and hospitals are packed with elderly patients on respirators. In Shanghai, more than 200 taxi drivers are driving ambulances to meet demand for emergency services, the Shanghai Morning Post reported.

International health experts believe Beijing's narrow definition of COVID-19 deaths does not reflect a true toll that could rise to more than a million fatalities this year.

Investors are optimistic that China's reopening can eventually reinvigorate a $US17 trillion economy suffering its lowest growth in nearly half a century.

Those hopes, alongside policy measures to help revive its troubled property sector, lifted China's yuan on Friday.

With the big Lunar New Year holidays late this month, the mainland is also set to open the border with its special administrative region of Hong Kong on Sunday, for the first time in three years.

Ferry services between the city and the gambling hub of Macau will resume on the same day.

Hong Kong's Cathay Pacific Airways said on Thursday it would more than double flights to mainland China. Flights to and from China remain at a tiny fraction of pre-COVID levels.