Residents in Guangzhou, a southern Chinese city, returned to work Thursday after Covid-19 lockdowns were lifted. Some residents in Chongqing (in the southwest) were no longer required for regular Covid testing. In Beijing, a senior official in health lowered the severity of Omicron variants. This is a rare decision by the government.
These developments indicate that the ruling Communist Party might be beginning to relax Covid restrictions, which are unpopular in light of the mass protests that have been the biggest challenge to Beijing in decades.
In response to anger at China’s tight lockdowns, protestors rallied in a dozen cities this weekend. Beijing initially took security measures to deter others from participating in the gatherings and round up the protesters. The party is now signaling that it will address the root causes of public anger. Intrusive pandemic controls have slowed economic growth, left millions of citizens confined to their homes for extended periods of time, and caused violent clashes this week.
Although the party has not yet publicly acknowledged widespread protests against lockdowns top security officers have warned they will crack down on “criminal actions that disrupt social order.” The death of Jiang Zemin , a former President, has made it more urgent to curb public discontent. This could encourage more people to take to the streets against the government.
China’s extremely stringent Covid laws could be relaxed to ease public anger. It is not clear how far the party will go, or if any shift is being led China’s leader, Xi Jinping. He has been the main enforcer of China’s “zero Covid.” policy. Mr. Xi has placed greater importance on the party’s ability to control the virus than any other country, particularly its geopolitical competitors in the West. Any reversal of or abandonment could undermine his authority.
Sun Chunlan the vice premier responsible for pandemic efforts acknowledged this week that Omicron variants were becoming less dangerous, but lockdowns continued in many areas of the country. Jinzhou, a city in the northeast of the country, stated on Thursday it would keep lockdowns in place for several days more because “it’d be a shame to not eradicate cases if possible!”
Beijing may face a challenge in trying to undo the over-hand approach that seemed unmovable until now, as evidenced by the pushback from Jinzhou. Even the phrase “dynamic zero Covid” that the party uses to describe their policy was absent in Ms. Sun’s comments to health officials.
Ms. Sun spoke at a symposium held at the National Health Commission Thursday to say that the country is entering a new phase of its fight against the virus.
Ms. Sun stated, “After three years fighting to eradicate Covid, our medical-disease control system has overcome the challenge.” “The public’s perception of their health has improved significantly.”
“China’s pandemic preventive measures face a new situation and new challenges given the weakening severity Omicron variant,” Ms. Sun noted Wednesday at a meeting, in which she sometimes did not wear a mask. She said that China must take small but consistent steps to improve its control.
Jin Dongyan, University of Hong Kong virologist, stated that the latest developments, particularly Ms. Sun’s comments, were the strongest indications yet of China changing its approach after years of intractability.
“Change could be imminent. They are moving in the right direction but they are not there yet,” Mr. Jin said. He also stated that China still needed to dispel misinformation regarding the severity of Covid as well as the side effects of vaccines.
“Many small steps can lead to a great difference,” said Mr. Jin.
Officials announced that Covid restrictions were being eased in Guangzhou, which is home to 19 million people. Lockdowns were lifted in at most four districts. Officials unhooked their masks quickly before the start of Wednesday’s news conference, in a staging gesture that was different from previous Covid-19 protocols. However, restrictions still applied to neighborhoods considered “high-risk,” which are areas where Covid cases were reported.
Residents of Guangzhou have come under intense scrutiny after refusing to be confined in their homes. Some restrictions lasted as much as a month. After weeks of being without work and starving, hundreds of migrants from the Haizhu district, a hub of garment production, tore down walls and hurled glass bottles at police officers this week.
After rules were relaxed, some residents entered work for the first-time in a month. Some reveled in simple pleasures such as dining at a restaurant. Faye Luo (30), a Guangzhou-based sales manager for a start-up technology company, said that it was good to get back to “normal” on Thursday. “I hope that normal life will last a little longer this time.”
Officials in Chongqing announced measures that would limit testing requirements and stop lockdowns being extended to high-risk areas. Other cities, such as Beijing and Shijiazhuang in the north, have modified their testing requirements and announced that supermarkets and malls will reopen.
Reports of the rolling back of controls in certain places were reported on Thursday by social media users and chat groups on WeChat (China’s most popular messaging app) and were met with optimism.
One protester from Shanghai said, “We were all very happy yesterday night,” but she was afraid of being identified by her surname Zhang. “We began to imagine how life would look after all the restrictions were lifted.”
Yanzhong Huang is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations for global health. He warned that any abrupt shift from “zero Covid”, could lead to a crisis in mass infections and overwhelm hospitals. If local officials or ordinary citizens interpret Ms. Sun’s comments as implying that they can lower their guard too quickly, it could result in a collapse of public health.
“In the absence a roadmap for an orderly transition her remarks might trigger unintended reactions at the local level which make a rapid and nationwide surge in cases more likely,” stated Mr. Huang. He has called on China to adopt a flexible Covid policy.
It was going to be difficult for both political and public health reasons to lift China’s strict Covid regulations. China’s older population isn’t sufficiently vaccinated to resist major epidemics. The country’s infrastructure for health is still insufficiently developed, especially in rural areas.
Last month, authorities announced rules that would limit the use of lockdowns and allow for the relaxation of quarantines for close contact of infected persons. Many local governments reverted to tight lockdowns after a series of outbreaks that led to protestors’ frustrations.
Even more important is the fact that Mr. Xi has cited his “zero Covid” policy as an example China’s global superiority, while other countries, particularly Western developed nations, have suffered hundreds of thousands of deaths due to the virus. The policy’s abandonment would be detrimental to Mr. Xi’s infallibility as China’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong.
The protests that were unimaginable just days ago in a country with censorship, surveillance and censorship have shown the dangers of sustaining the policy indefinitely. Dissatisfaction with Covid measures can quickly turn into deeper grievances over how much the party under Mr. Xi has inserted themselves into daily life and asserted control over society.
The authorities will be watching closely to ensure that protesters don’t use Mr. Jiang’s death to regain momentum, given China’s shrinking freedom of expression. The 1989 death of Hu Yaobang (a Chinese liberal-leaning leader) sparked student-led demonstrations for democracy in Tiananmen square.
These calls have not been made to Mr. Jiang’s death. One protester who requested anonymity by identifying himself only as Ye said that “the young these days have mixed opinions about Jiang, particularly those who are conscious enough to take action on their ideas.” The protester stated that people clung to Mr. Jiang primarily to make a point about Mr. Xi.
Some people recalled Jiang as an example of an open and outward-facing China in protester group chats on Wednesday. Others pointed out his inhumanity towards those who challenged the authority of the Communist Party, such as his crackdown against the Falun Gong spiritual group.
China’s state media and officials saw the death of the former leader as an opportunity to restore the image of both the Communist Party and Mr. Jiang’s successor, Mr. Xi. The former leader was lavished with praise by obituaries, and major Chinese websites were made black and white as a common memorial practice after the deaths of significant figures.
In response to questions, Zhu Jiangnan (associate professor of Chinese politics at Hong Kong University) stated that the party would like to “turn Jiang’s passing away, massive mourning of his contributions to the country, and turn Jiang’s death into a way for people to consolidate their faith in the party.”