China’s government on Wednesday announced a broad relaxation of its exceptionally tight Covid restrictions, an implicit concession to public discontent following massive street protests in more than a dozen cities a week ago that challenged Beijing’s authority.
The changes are not a complete dismantling of China’s “zero Covid” policy, but still represent a significant relaxation of measures that have dragged the economy down by disrupting the daily lives of hundreds of millions of people, forcing many small businesses to close their doors. and increase youth unemployment. to almost 20 percent, a record high.
The move reduces the frequency of mandatory tests, which had become an almost daily task in many parts of the country to move around or use public services. People with a mild or asymptomatic form of Covid may be allowed to self-isolate at home rather than being sent to hospitals, as has been the case since the virus’s outbreak. The government appeared to maintain the use of lockdowns in buildings with cases, but said such measures should be quickly limited and lifted, and exits should not be blocked.
Beijing’s shift is particularly notable because Xi Jinping, China’s strongman leader, had staked the party’s legitimacy on the success of “zero Covid”, turning it into an ideological campaign aimed at asserting the superiority of centralized control over democratic demonstrate management. Mr Xi enforced “zero Covid” with ferocious vigor, declaring a “people’s war” against the coronavirus that mobilized the masses in what would become an unrestricted strategy to eradicate infection.
Dozens of civil servants have been punished or fired after outbreaks. Cities have imposed lockdowns that have locked hundreds of millions of people into their homes for weeks or even months at a time, often with harsh measures such as locks and barriers. Citizens and health experts who wanted to question the extent of controls or problems with lockdowns were punished or silenced. Above all, the approach has institutionalized a system of digital surveillance that has developed the power to not only track the movements of virtually all citizens and residents, but also keep them in place.
The controls have become harder to justify as the rapidly spreading Omicron variants have continued to slip through, and especially as the rest of the world has increasingly adapted to living with the virus. In late November, public discontent boiled over with protests representing the party’s most widespread challenge in decades – damaging Mr Xi’s image as a leader and defying his long-standing rhetoric that the policy enjoyed widespread support and was necessary to save people’s lives. to improve.
Understand the protests in China
“By now, Xi Jinping should also understand that this virus cannot be controlled, and if it cannot be controlled, it must be opened sooner or later,” said Deng Yuwen, a former editor at a Communist Party newspaper . the Study Times, who now lives in the United States and writes commentaries on Chinese politics. “But the most fundamental thing is that the economy is no longer sustainable. If they try to tighten up one more time, the common people would really cause hell.
Because the measures are so extensive and often applied seemingly arbitrarily, they have eroded the drive and ambition that have driven China’s success in recent decades. More importantly, the commercial slowdown that “zero Covid” caused undermined an important tenet of the Party’s rule that in exchange for democratic freedoms, the people would enjoy steady economic growth and the chance of a better life.
The rollback also highlights the huge financial burden that Beijing’s comprehensive approach has placed on local governments. The policy has relied heavily on mass PCR testing and quarantines in makeshift hospitals and newly built facilities to house people considered close contacts — at a cost that has escalated as outbreaks have increased.
“Economically, they can’t sustain this,” Mr. Deng said. “Even if local governments want to shut down like before, they just don’t have the money. In addition, there were protests from students and the public, so it’s like the donkey has ended up on the grindstone and can be slaughtered – it’s time to open up.
The central government’s announcement came after a slew of measures taken in recent days by local governments, particularly in major cities such as Shanghai and Beijing, to relax their regulations. Shanghai said residents no longer need to show a negative PCR test to ride the subway or buses or enter open-air parks. Beijing this week dropped a similar requirement for access to the city’s main airport, as well as supermarkets, shopping malls and other public places.
The shift in Beijing represents a clear signal from the national government to local officials across China that their performance will no longer be measured by whether they prevent Covid cases from occurring within their jurisdiction.
Many health experts have repeatedly warned that China needs to ramp up the pace of vaccinations, especially for the elderly, before taking major steps to reopen the country. People over the age of 80, who are among the most vulnerable to serious illness or death during a Covid infection, have the lowest vaccination rate: only two-thirds have received the first course of vaccination, usually two injections, and only two-fifths have received the first course of vaccination plus a booster.
China initially focused on vaccinating working-age adults against the virus. It discontinued vaccinations for the elderly because its vaccines had been tested mainly on medical personnel and not on elderly citizens. This has since contributed to the hesitation of the elderly to vaccinate.
“The most important thing is to vaccinate the elderly in a short time,” said Jin Dongyan, a virologist at the University of Hong Kong.
China has repeatedly refused to buy mRNA vaccines from the West while trying to develop its own mRNA vaccines. It has instead relied on its own vaccines, which use an older technology and an inactivated virus. Studies outside of China have found that the Chinese vaccines are less effective than mRNA vaccines, but they still somewhat reduce the risk of serious illness or death in case of infection.
In the days leading up to Wednesday’s announcement, China’s state media had made a concerted effort to justify Beijing’s policy change. After years of amplifying Covid fears to justify strict lockdowns, health officials and state media mobilized in recent days to assure the Chinese public that the virus was no longer so deadly.
On Monday, China’s state broadcaster CCTV released an interview with a respiratory health expert who explained that current Omicron strains posed a lower risk of serious illness than the common flu. (Other studies have also found that Omicron infections, while highly transmissible, are often less severe than previous variants of the virus, though they are still potentially dangerous, especially for the elderly and those with compromised immune systems.)
Another health expert, on Guangzhou’s official disease prevention blog, focused on the widely held notion – which became popular among Chinese due to the government’s previous coverage – that vaccines were riskier for older people with pre-existing conditions. The expert called it a “misconception.”
China’s heavily censored social media feeds echoed the messages. Hashtags like “I don’t panic at all after a positive test” and “pharmacists explain how to deal with the mild symptoms of Covid” were trending on the popular microblog Weibo.
The timing of the media blitz — based on mass protests that at times openly challenged Mr Xi’s authority — showed how the party can shift gears by using its propaganda to cover up what were in fact policy mistakes, said Willy Lam, a longtime analyst of Chinese politics in Hong Kong, senior fellow at the Jamestown Foundation.
Mr Xi “can still insist he was right about ‘zero Covid’, but the circumstances leave him with no choice,” Mr Lam said, referring to the recent mass protests and the faltering economy.
“They are now trying to cover up the mistakes they made by finally telling the public the truth that the Omicron variant is not life threatening,” he added.
Chris Buckley reporting contributed.