Japan makes U-turn on flights for citizens

Japan is rolling back a travel ban that it put in place to stop the spread of the Omicron coronavirus variant. The restriction would have left some citizens stranded abroad.

The ban was on new bookings for flights into Japan for the rest of the year. The transport ministry had asked airlines to cooperate.

Existing reservations would not have been canceled. But new bookings would have been virtually impossible, even for Japanese citizens.

Prime Minister Kishida Fumio admitted Thursday the halt on new bookings had caused confusion. He said, "I instructed the transport ministry to fully consider the demand from Japanese people for a way to return home."

The government did not mention foreign residents.

But the situation is taking its toll on major events. The International Skating Union says it's canceling the Grand Prix Final international figure skating competition next week in the western prefecture of Osaka.

On the vaccine front, Japan started giving booster shots to medical workers on Wednesday. In principle, people have to wait at least eight months after their second dose.

But the government's chief spokesperson says that's not set in stone. Chief Cabinet Secretary Matsuno Hirokazu said, "The government will further consider which people do not have to wait eight months. Factors include the supply of doses, any changes in the infection situation, and the preparedness of local governments."

Japan has the pandemic under relative control. New cases remain low. Authorities reported 127 across the country on Thursday. Tokyo confirmed 11. The current number of confirmed Omicron cases in Japan is two.

Research institutes around the world are analyzing Omicron symptoms and the effectiveness of vaccines.

The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control said all 44 people it confirmed as having Omicron in the EU on Tuesday had mild or no symptoms.

A senior health official in Botswana told Reuters news agency 16 out of 19 people with Omicron had very mild or no symptoms.

A Japanese expert says there's still no clear data on the new variant's characteristics.

Kitasato University Professor Nakayama Tetsuo said, "The number of serious cases increases once infections spread to a certain extent, so we must not drop our guard. We must keep collecting data, make sure we understand the situation, and make decisions based on the results of experiments."

Peng Shuai: How China censored a tennis star

What happened to her online followers?

Weibo users, just like those on Twitter, can normally post comments in reply to posts.

However, comments on Ms Peng's own timeline have been blocked - making it impossible for her followers (more than half a million of them) to engage in a conversation.

It also appears that certain specific search terms were temporarily blocked - so if a user typed Ms Peng's name, for example, results were restricted.

The only search result for her name that shows up on Weibo is a post from the French Embassy in Beijing on 22 November, expressing concern about the lack of information on Ms Peng.

People were able to comment on this, but only selected comments actually appeared.

There is some other content relating to Peng Shuai currently available on Weibo - but it's just video clips from her old tennis matches.

The Women's Tennis Association (WTA) has decided to suspend all tournaments in China, including Hong Kong, amid concern that Ms Peng "is not allowed to communicate freely" and seems to have been "pressured to contradict her allegation of sexual assault".

Comments on the WTA's two most recent posts on Weibo are currently blocked, although its account is still available.

In addition, Weibo posts by other users referring to Ms Peng have been removed.

On 3 November, Chinese tennis commentator, Ouyang Wensheng, wrote: "Hope you are safe" and "How desperate and helpless she must have been". Both these posts have been taken down.

To navigate around the censors, some have come up with creative solutions.

Instead of referring to Zhang Gaoli directly, Weibo users have referred to him by similar names, or names that have the same initials in Chinese.

However, the authorities are wise to this and posts that try to evade the censors in this way have also been quickly taken down.

So far, mainstream state media have been steering clear of the story.

Search engine Baidu shows only state media reporting on Zhang Gaoli. And if you search for "Peng Shuai", the only results that show up are from 2020 and earlier.

Other social-media sites, such as Douyin (Chinese TikTok) and popular video-sharing platforms Kuaishou and Bilibili, also have limited search access for sensitive terms relating to the story.

On question-and-answer website Zhihu, no results appear when the name "Peng Shuai" is entered. However, when "Zhang Gaoli" is searched for, there are posts portraying him as a heroic leader.