Even as Sun Chunlan, the deputy prime minister overseeing pandemic efforts, acknowledged this week that the danger posed by Omicron variants was diminishing, lockdowns remained in place in many parts of the country. At least one city in the country’s northeast, Jinzhou, said on Thursday it planned to maintain lockdowns for several more days because “it would be a shame not to stamp out cases if they can be eradicated!”
The pullback from places like Jinzhou points to the challenge Beijing could face in unwinding the heavy-handed approach that seemed unwavering until this week. In Sun’s remarks to health officials, carried by the state media, even the phrase the party uses to describe its policies, “dynamic zero COVID,” was notably absent.
Speaking at a symposium at the National Health Commission on Thursday, Sun said for the second time in two days that the country was entering a new phase in its campaign against the virus.
“After three years of battling COVID, our medical and disease control system has risen to the challenge,” Sun said. “The public’s sense of health has increased significantly.”
“China’s pandemic prevention faces a new situation and new tasks given the debilitating severity of the Omicron variant,” Sun had noted Wednesday at a meeting in which she sometimes did not wear a mask. She added that China needs to take “small but unremitting steps” to optimize its controls.
Jin Dongyan, a virologist at the University of Hong Kong, said the developments — particularly Sun’s comments — were some of the strongest indications yet that China might change its approach after years of persistence.
“Change may be imminent. They are moving in the right direction, but they are not there yet,” said Jin, adding that China still has work to do to clear up misinformation about the severity of COVID and the side effects of vaccines.
“Many small steps can lead to a big difference,” said Jin.
After officials announced an easing of COVID restrictions in Guangzhou, a city of 19 million, lockdowns were lifted in at least four districts. Before a press conference on Wednesday, officials took off their masks in quick succession, a staged gesture that deviated from previous COVID-19 protocols. But there were still restrictions on neighborhoods considered “high risk” where COVID cases have been reported.
Guangzhou has come under huge scrutiny after residents vigorously resisted confinement in their homes, restrictions that could last as long as a month in some cases. This week, hundreds of migrant workers in Haizhu district, a garment manufacturing hub, tore down barriers and threw glass bottles at riot police officers after weeks of being out of work and seeing their food supplies dwindle.
Some residents returned to work for the first time in a month after rules were relaxed. Others enjoyed the simple pleasure of dining in a restaurant. “It’s good to be back to normal,” said Faye Luo, 30, a sales manager at a technology startup in Guangzhou, who returned to her office on Thursday. “This time I hope that normal life can last a little longer.”
In Chongqing, officials announced measures to limit testing requirements and prevent lockdowns from being extended to high-risk areas. Several other cities, including Beijing and the northern city of Shijiazhuang, amended testing requirements and announced shopping malls and supermarkets would reopen.
On Thursday, reports of controls being rolled back in some places spread through social media feeds and chat groups on WeChat, China’s most popular messaging app, and were met with a degree of optimism.
“We were all very happy last night,” said a Shanghai protester who asked to be identified only by her surname Zhang for fear of official reprisals. “We started imagining what life would be like after restrictions are eased across the country.”
Yanzhong Huang, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations, warned that without proper planning, any sudden shift from “zero COVID” could trigger a crisis of mass infections and overwhelming hospitals, if local officials and ordinary residents read Sun’s comments to indicate that they can be wary too quickly.
“In the absence of a roadmap for an orderly transition, her comments at the local level could spark unintended reactions that make a rapid nationwide surge in cases more likely,” said Huang, who has called on China to adopt more flexible COVID policies. policy.
Lifting China’s strict COVID measures would always be difficult, for both public health and political reasons. China’s population of older adults is not vaccinated enough to weather a major outbreak, and the country’s health infrastructure is still largely underdeveloped, especially in smaller towns and rural areas.
Last month, authorities announced rules to limit the scope of lockdowns and relax quarantines for close contacts of infected people. But faced with a spate of subsequent outbreaks, many local governments reverted to strict lockdowns, adding to protesters’ frustrations.
Perhaps more importantly, Xi has touted his “zero COVID” policy as an example of China’s global superiority, while other countries, especially western developed countries, have seen hundreds of thousands of deaths from the virus. Abandoning the policy entirely would undermine Xi’s image of infallibility as China’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong.
Yet the protests, which seemed unthinkable a few days ago in a country where dissent is stifled by censorship and surveillance, have highlighted the risks of keeping the policy in place indefinitely. Dissatisfaction with COVID measures can quickly spiral into deeper grievances about how extensively the party under Xi has interfered in everyday life and asserted its control over society.
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Given China’s shrinking space for expression, authorities will also be watching closely to ensure protesters do not use Jiang’s death to recapture momentum. In 1989, the death of Hu Yaobang, a liberal Chinese leader, sparked student-led pro-democracy demonstrations in Tiananmen Square.
So far, Jiang’s death has not led to such calls. “The young people today have mixed feelings about Jiang, especially those who are knowledgeable enough to carry out their ideas,” said one protester, who asked to be identified only by the surname Ye. People clung to Jiang, the protester said, mainly as a foil to criticize Xi.
In protester group chats and on Chinese social media on Wednesday, some remembered Jiang as the epitome of an open, outward-looking China. Others pointed to his brutality against those who challenged the Communist Party’s authority, such as his crackdown on the Falun Gong spiritual movement.
For Chinese officials and state media, the former leader’s death presented an opportunity to restore the Communist Party’s image, as well as that of Jiang’s chosen successor, Xi. Obituaries lavished praise on the former leader, and major Chinese websites switched to black-and-white, a customary practice of commemorating the deaths of important figures.
The party will want to “turn Jiang’s passing and mass mourning for him and his contribution to the country as a way to consolidate people’s faith” into the party, wrote Zhu Jiangnan, an associate professor of Chinese politics at the University of China. Hong Kong, in response to questions.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.