After the protests, Beijing wants to relax its “zero Covid” policy

Chinese health authorities have given the first signs of a possible relaxation of the strict “zero Covid” policy after a wave of angry demonstrations against health restrictions and more freedoms. Speaking to the National Health Commission (NHC) on Wednesday, Vice Premier Sun Chunlan said China’s approach to the virus “faces new conditions and new challenges” thanks to the less dangerous Omicron variant and advances in the vaccine. On Tuesday, Beijing had already decided to speed up vaccination of the elderly, which is still not enough.

A strategy that has disrupted the daily lives of Chinese people for three years

Ms Sun, one of the central figures in China’s strategy to fight the pandemic, did not mention the “zero Covid” policy in her remarks – according to statements by the state news agency New China – raising hopes that the strategy will materialize. For three years, which has disrupted the daily life of the Chinese people and the country’s economy, it will soon be eased.

Frustrated by repeated arrests and near-daily PCR tests, thousands of Chinese demonstrated last weekend in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou or Wuhan – where the first cases were detected in December 2019. For the ruling communists, this is the most widespread wave of protests. Since the pro-democracy mobilizations of Tiananmen in 1989. Surprised, they called for a “crackdown” to contain the movement, while at the same time giving a word on the health policy front.

A record, but small numbers

So despite record pollution figures in the (southern) industrial metropolis of Canton, where clashes pitted demonstrators against police on Tuesday, a weeks-long curfew was lifted. Because, if the numbers are among the highest since the start of the pandemic, they remain small: 35,800 local cases and the vast majority of asymptomatic cases were reported on Thursday out of a population of 1.4 billion.

Restrictions have been eased to varying degrees in 11 districts of Guangzhou, including Haizhu, the epicenter of the protests. According to the Local Health Commission, with the exception of a few neighborhoods considered “high risk”, “others are managed as low risk areas”. On Wednesday, the city of Chongqing (center) announced that contact cases meeting certain conditions would be eligible for home quarantine, a clear shift from the policy up until then – positive cases and contacts are the quarantine center.

Analysts at ANZ Research said in a note that these local reliefs, along with Ms Sun’s remarks, “could be a sign that China is beginning to consider ending its strict zero Covid policy”. “We believe that the Chinese authorities are moving to a ‘living with Covid’ strategy, as evidenced by new rules that allow people to self-isolate at home instead of being taken to quarantine centers,” they added.

On Thursday morning, two major Chinese newspapers published expert comments to reassure the general public that Covid is not dangerous in most cases, following similar publications in recent days that have prepared the public for a change in mindset.

Such a widespread rebellion is rare

As we approach the third anniversary of the first cases detected in Wuhan, it is clear that residents are exhausted. A deadly fire in Urumqi, the capital of northwestern Xinjiang region, sparked protests over the weekend, with some netizens blaming health restrictions for hampering rescue efforts.

But the demonstrators made political demands, some even calling for the departure of President Xi Jinping, who was renewed for an unprecedented third term last month. The authorities’ strict control over information and health restrictions on travel within China make it difficult to estimate the total number of protesters in the country. But given the repression of front-line opposition to the government in any form, such a widespread rebellion is rare.

Mobilizations in 1989 ended in bloody repression, with the military, particularly Beijing’s intervention in the famous Tiananmen Square. On Wednesday, when the death of former President Jiang Zemin, who came to power immediately after Tiananmen, was announced, the Communist Party rightly emphasized its ability to restore calm during this uprising.

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