Guangzhou in southern China saw residents return to work for the first time since Covid-19 lockdowns were lifted on Thursday. In Chongqing in the southwest, residents no longer needed to undergo regular Covid tests. A senior official from Beijing’s health department lowered the severity level of Omicron variants. It was a rare act for the government.

These developments suggest that the ruling Communist Party may begin to ease restrictions on Covid that are not popular in response to mass protests, which have been the largest challenge to Beijing for decades.

After anger over China’s lockdowns, protestors gathered in more than a dozen cities last weekend. Beijing responded initially with security measures that focused on deterring other protesters from joining the demonstrations. The party now signals a willingness to address the root of the anger. Intrusive pandemic control that has stifled economic growth , left millions confined for long periods, and set off violent clashes just this week.

While the party has yet to publicly acknowledge the mass protests against lockdowns security officials warned that authorities would crackdown on “criminal acts which disrupt social order.” Jiang Zemin died on Wednesday, and this could lead to more people taking to the streets to protest against the government.

China’s stringent Covid policies could be eased. However, it isn’t clear how far the party is willing to go. This shift could be led by Xi Jinping (China’s leader), who has been the principal enforcer for the country’s “zero Covid” policy. Mr. Xi has staked his party’s legitimacy on controlling virus better than other countries, especially geopolitical rivals in West. Any reversal or abandonment this policy could threaten his authority.

Sun Chunlan (the vice premier in charge of pandemic efforts) acknowledged this week the danger posed by Omicron variants was decreasing, but lockdowns remained in place in many other parts of the nation. Jinzhou, the city in China’s northeast, , stated that it will keep lockdowns in effect for several more days as “it would be shame not to eliminate cases if they are possible!”

Beijing faces a difficult task in trying to reverse the rigid approach that was until this week seemingly immovable. This is evident from the opposition coming from Jinzhou. The party’s policy of “dynamic zero Covid,” which Ms. Sun addressed to health officials was not mentioned in the remarks. They used it to describe the policy.

Ms. Sun stated that, speaking at a symposium at National Health Commission on Thursday afternoon, the country was entering a new phase with its fight against the virus.

“Our medical and disease control systems have met the challenge after three years of fighting against Covid,” Ms. Sun declared. “The public’s awareness of health has significantly improved.”

“China’s Pandemic Prevention faces a New Situation and New Tasks Given the Weakening Severity of the Omicron Variant,” Ms. Sun said on Wednesday, during a meeting where she did not wear masks at times. She stated that China must make “small, but unwavering” steps to maximize its control.

The Chinese flag at half-staff in Beijing on Thursday in honor of the former Chinese leader Jiang Zemin. His death could inspire more people to demonstrate against the Chinese government.Credit…Noel Celis/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Jin Dongyan is a University of Hong Kong virologist who said that Ms. Sun’s comments and the developments were strong indicators that China will change its approach after years of intractability.

“Change may be imminent. They’re moving in a positive direction, but they’re still not there yet,” stated Mr. Jin. He added that China still had to dispel misinformation about the severity and side effects of vaccines.

“any small things could make a big difference,” Mr. Jin stated.

At least four districts were freed from lockdowns after officials announced that Covid restrictions had been eased in Guangzhou (a city with 19 million inhabitants). Officials removed their masks before the start Wednesday’s news conference. This was a stunt that was not consistent with past Covid-19 protocols. For neighborhoods considered to be at high risk, where Covid cases have been reported, there were no restrictions.

Guangzhou is under great scrutiny after residents refused to be held in their homes for up to a month. After going weeks without work, hundreds of migrant workers from Haizhu, a district known for its garment production, broke down barriers and hurled glass at riot officers.

Some residents were able to go back to work after the rules were relaxed. Others enjoyed the simple joys of eating in a restaurant. Faye Luo (aged 30), a Guangzhou technology start-up sales manager, stated that it was great to return to normal. “I hope normal life can continue a little longer this year,” said Faye Luo, 30, a sales manager at a Guangzhou technology start-up.

Officials from Chongqing announced measures to reduce testing requirements and prevent lockdowns expanding beyond high-risk zones. Other cities, including Beijing, and Shijiazhuang (northern China), modified the testing requirements and announced that shopping malls and supermarkets would reopen.

There was some optimism in the face of reports that certain controls were being removed from some areas on Thursday.

“We were all happy last night,” said one Shanghai protester who requested to be identified only as Zhang, fearing official reprisals. “We started to imagine what life would be like after the country’s restrictions were removed.”

A coronavirus testing site in Beijing in November. On Thursday, reports of the rollback of controls in some places spread across social media feeds and chat groups.Credit…Tingshu Wang/Reuters

Yanzhong, a Council on Foreign Relations senior fellow for global healthcare, warned that any sudden shift from “zero Covid”, without proper planning could cause a crisis, overwhelming hospitals.

“In the lack of a roadmap for an orderly transformation, her remarks might trigger unexpected responses at the local-level that make a rapid surge of cases more probable,” stated Mr. Huang. He called for China’s Covid policy to be more flexible.

For both political and public health reasons, lifting China’s Covid strictures was always going be difficult. China’s elderly population is not adequately vaccinated, making it difficult to survive major outbreaks. In rural areas, the infrastructure for healthcare is still poor.

Last month, officials announced rules to limit lockdowns and ease quarantines for close relatives of infected individuals. However, protesters were frustrated to see many local governments return to strict lockdowns following a second wave of outbreaks.

Perhaps even more important, Mr. Xi has cited China’s “zero Covid policy” as an example of China’s global superiority. While other countries, especially Western-developed nations, suffered hundreds of thousand deaths from the virus, China is a shining example of China’s global superiority. To abandon the policy would mean Mr. Xi’s infallibility and status as China’s most powerful leader after Mao Zedong.

Protests in China, where freedom of expression is suppressed by surveillance and censorship, seem unthinkable a few days ago have exposed the dangers associated with the policy being maintained indefinitely. Dissatisfaction about Covid can quickly escalate into more serious grievances about the extent to which Mr. Xi’s party has inserted itself in daily life and asserted its power over society.

Due to the shrinking expression space in China, authorities will watch closely to ensure protesters don’t take advantage of Mr. Jiang’s passing to gain momentum. 1989 saw the death of Hu Yaobang – a Chinese liberal leader – which led to student-led protests in Tiananmen Square for pro-democracy.

This has not happened yet. “The young these day have mixed feelings about Jiang. Especially those who are aware of their ideas and take action,” stated one protester, who requested to remain anonymous by using the surname Ye. According to the protester, Mr. Jiang was used mainly to criticize Mr. Xi.

Many people remembered Mr. Jiang, who was seen as the embodiment open, outward-facing China, in protester group chats and on Chinese Social Media on Wednesday. Others pointed out his brutality against those who challenged authority of the Communist Party such as his crackdown upon the Falun Gong spiritual organization.

China’s official media and state media saw the death as an opportunity for the Communist Party to rebuild its image, along with that of Mr. Jiang, their chosen successor. Many Chinese websites changed to black and white after the death of an important figure, as well as their former leader, in obituaries.

According to Zhu Jiangnan – an associate professor of Chinese political science at Hong Kong University – the party will seek to “turn Jiang’s death and massive mourning about him and his contribution for the country as a means to consolidate people’s faith” in them.

Reporting was contributed by Amy Chang Chien and Olivia Wang

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