The Chinese government on Wednesday announced a broad easing of particularly strict Covid-19 restrictions, a tacit concession to public discontent following mass street protests in more than Dozens of cities a week ago challenged Beijing’s authority.
These changes are not the complete lifting of China’s “no Covid” policy, but still represent a significant relaxation of measures that have dragged down the economy by disrupting daily life. hundreds of millions of people, forcing many small businesses to close and leaving young people unemployed. to nearly 20 percent, a record high.
The move reduces the frequency of mandatory testing, which in many parts of the country has become a near-daily job just to get around or use public services. People with mild or no symptoms of Covid could be allowed to isolate at home instead of being taken to the hospital as has been the case since the virus emerged. The government appeared to maintain the use of blockade measures in buildings with cases, but said such measures should be limited and lifted quickly, and exits must not be blocked.
Beijing’s shift is particularly notable because Xi Jinping, China’s powerful leader, has staked the party’s legitimacy on the success of a “no Covid”, turning it into a war. ideological translation to demonstrate the superiority of centralized control over democracy. Xi has enforced “no Covid” forcefully, declaring a “people’s war” against the coronavirus, mobilizing the masses to participate in what will become an unlimited strategy. to eliminate the infection.
Dozens of officials have been punished or fired after the outbreak. Cities have imposed lockdowns that have kept hundreds of millions of people indoors for weeks or even months, often with brutal measures like lockdowns and barricades. Citizens and health professionals who want to question the extent of control or problems with locking have been punished or silenced. Above all, this approach has institutionalized a digital surveillance system that has developed the power not only to track the movements of most citizens and residents, but also to keep them in place. mind.
Control measures become harder to justify as rapidly spreading Omicron variants continue to slip through and especially as the rest of the world increasingly adjusts to living with the virus. Public discontent that flared up in late November with protests was the most common challenge to the party in decades – damaging Xi’s image as a leader and dissident. despite his long-standing argument that the policy has broad support and is needed to improve people’s lives.
Understanding the protests in China
“Now, Xi Jinping should also understand that this virus cannot be controlled, and if it cannot be controlled, the door will have to be opened sooner or later,” said Deng Yuwen, a former editor of a Chinese newspaper. Communist Party, said. Study Times, currently lives in the United States and writes commentary on Chinese politics. “But the most basic thing is that the economy can’t hold out much longer. If they try to tighten again, normal people will get really mad.”
The measures, so extensive and often seemingly arbitrarily executed, have dented China’s momentum and ambition to succeed in recent decades. More importantly, the “Covid-free” trade downturn has eroded a key tenet of party rule, that in exchange for democratic liberties, people will enjoy economic growth. stability and the chance to have a better life.
The setback also points to the enormous financial burden that Beijing’s inclusive approach has placed on local governments. The policy relies heavily on mass PCR testing and isolation at makeshift hospitals and newly built facilities to accommodate presumed close contacts – at increasing costs as the outbreak flares up. broadcast.
“Economically, they cannot sustain this,” Mr. Deng said. “Even if the local government wants to blockade like before, they just don’t have the money. Then on top of the student and public demonstrations, so just like the donkey has finished its work on the whetstone and may be slaughtered – it’s time to open up.”
The central government’s announcement comes after a series of moves in the past few days by local governments, especially in big cities like Shanghai and Beijing, to relax their regulations. Shanghai said it will no longer require residents to present a negative PCR test to ride the subway, bus or enter an outdoor park. Beijing dropped a similar requirement this week for access to the city’s main airport, as well as supermarkets, shopping malls and other public venues.
The change in Beijing represents a clear signal from the national government to local officials across China that their performance will no longer be measured simply by whether they prevent any any Covid cases occurred in their jurisdiction or not.
Many health experts have repeatedly warned that China needs to speed up vaccinations, especially for the elderly, before taking big steps to reopen the country. People over 80, who are most susceptible to severe illness or death from Covid, have the lowest vaccination rates: only two-thirds have received the first round of vaccinations, usually two shots, and only two out of five have been vaccinated. received the initial vaccination plus the booster.
Initially, China focused on vaccinating working-age adults against the virus. It stopped vaccinating the elderly because its vaccines were mainly tested on healthcare workers and not on elderly people. This has contributed to hesitancy to vaccinate the elderly ever since.
“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. Instead, it has relied on its own vaccine, using older technology and inactivated viruses. Studies outside of China have found that Chinese vaccines are less effective than mRNA vaccines, but they still somewhat reduce the chance of serious illness or death in the event of an infection.
In the days leading up to Wednesday’s announcement, Chinese state media put out a concerted efforts to justify Beijing’s policy change. After years of amplifying Covid fears to justify strict lockdown measures, health officials and state media have in recent days campaigned to reassure the Chinese public. that the virus is no longer lethal.
On Monday, China’s state broadcaster, CCTV, released a interview with a respiratory health expert, who explained that current Omicron variants carry a lower risk of serious illness than the common flu. (Other studies have also found that Omicron infections, although highly transmissible, are often less severe than previous variants of the virus, although still potentially dangerous, especially especially for the elderly and those with compromised immune systems.)
Another health expert, on Guangzhou’s official epidemic prevention blog, took aim at the widely held view – popular among Chinese thanks to an earlier government message – that vaccines are dangerous. greater risk for older adults with pre-existing medical conditions. Experts call it a “wrong nontion.”
China’s heavily censored social media feed reflects the message. Hashtags like “I’m not panicking at all after testing positive” and “pharmacists explain how to deal with mild Covid symptoms” are trending on the popular microblogging site, Weibo.
Willy Lam, a longtime analyst for the South China Morning Post, said the timing of the flash attack in the media – after mass protests that sometimes openly challenged the authority of Mr. Xi – shows how the party can divert using its propaganda to hide actual policy mistakes. Chinese politics in Hong Kong senior colleague at the Jamestown Foundation.
Mr. Xi “could still insist that he is right with ‘no Covid’ but due to forced circumstances, he has no choice,” Lam said, referring to recent mass protests. and the economy faltered.
He added: “Now they are trying to cover up the mistakes they made by finally telling the public the truth that the Omicron variant is not life threatening.
Chris Buckley contribution report.