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China clamps down on ‘zero covid’ protests, loosens some pandemic measures

Demonstrations against Beijing’s “zero covid” policy spread to cities around the world on Nov. 28, showing solidarity with the protesters in China. (Video: Reuters)
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Chinese health officials Tuesday showed small signs of potential compromise on the state’s hardline “zero covid” policy, pledging a new campaign to boost senior citizens after protests over virus restrictions flared nationwide.

China, which has sought to stamp out the coronavirus through mass testing and harsh lockdowns, is in the throes of a near-record outbreak, logging more than 38,500 infections on Tuesday. But residents, fed up with the regulations, exploded into protest in major cities over the weekend, in a rare show of mass public dissent.

The National Health Commission said Tuesday that it would encourage local governments to use advanced data analysis to identify elderly people who should be immunized and get convincing reasons for an exemption if they refuse. Just two-thirds of Chinese citizens older than 80 have received two doses of a vaccine, and only 40 percent of that age group have received a booster shot.

Beijing’s coronavirus-fighting policies have kept the country’s death rate low by international standards, but medical experts are increasingly questioning the sustainability of such measures amid the spread of more transmissible versions of the omicron variant.

“We have always been studying and making adjustments to protect people’s interests as much as possible and reduce the impact [of zero covid] on China’s economic and social development,” Mi Feng, a spokesman for the National Health Commission, said Tuesday at a news briefing.

In Beijing, officials pledged not to lock down residential buildings for more than 24 hours at a time. And the southwestern metropolis of Chengdu called off the construction of a massive facility intended to house more than 10,000 people, in a sign that mass centralized quarantine could be on its way out.

Public transportation in Urumqi, the regional capital of Xinjiang, partially restarted Monday, while delivery services resumed Tuesday. A district in the economic hub of Guangzhou where there had recently been a spate of covid infections announced Monday that it would exempt seniors, students and people who worked from home from mass testing unless they need to enter public venues.

But China said last month that it would reduce the burden of covid measures on daily life, without offering a roadmap. And local officials are still expected to quickly curb the widespread transmission of cases.

The government’s hint at minor concessions around covid also coincided with large-scale censorship and fear that a harsher clampdown was on its way.

What you need to know about China’s covid protests

Over the weekend, from Hangzhou in the east to Kunming in the southwest and Beijing in the north, groups of people demonstrated by holding up blank paper — a symbol of state censorship — in solidarity with protesters in Shanghai, the first major city where the recent rallies against the zero covid measures occurred.

The protests were primarily vehicles to vent about lockdowns and commemorate people who had died in a fire in the far northwestern region of Xinjiang last week. Many Chinese believe that the zero covid policy worsened the tragedy by slowing first responders, an allegation that authorities deny.

Frustrations about political oppression also crept in, with some calling for the ouster of the ruling Communist Party and President Xi Jinping.

But by Monday, the demonstrations were smaller, the censors were faster at banning accounts and scrubbing posts, and police were patrolling and setting up barricades in Shanghai and Beijing. Even the phrase “blank paper” was censored online.

Beijing will “not allow a protest movement to occupy China’s streets for any length of time,” Mark Williams, chief Asia economist at Capital Economics, a consultancy, wrote in a Monday research note. “If the protests continue, a crackdown is very likely.”

Rallies against alleged local government malfeasance are also not an uncommon sight in China — but prolonged, nationwide protests against central authorities are extremely unusual. Videos of these moments circulated widely online, even as censors made efforts to cut off access.

Local security officials, who appeared to be caught off guard when demonstrations began over the weekend, seemed more proactive in trying to stamp out Monday’s protests. In Hangzhou, home to tech giants including Alibaba, police were shown in a widely circulated video cornering a bespectacled young man and trying to grab a bouquet of chrysanthemums, a symbol of mourning, from him.

“Can’t I bring some flowers to the West Lake?” the man asked the officers, referring to a popular destination where some had gathered to demand the lifting of strict coronavirus measures. Security forces attempted to take the man away by force but were stopped by onlookers. The man was eventually let go.

Another clip showed a woman forcibly taken away by police in front of an upscale mall in Hangzhou. As she screamed for help, a crowd of perhaps dozens gathered, with some yelling, “Free her.” Authorities ordered the crowd to disperse, citing social-distancing protocols.

The Washington Post was not able to immediately independently verify the authenticity of the two clips. But a subway station near the West Lake was closed Monday evening, according to Niu, a resident who spoke on the condition that only her last name be used for fear of government reprisal.

Police also stepped up patrols around the lake and conducted identity checks on people in the area, she said. “There were a lot of police cars parked around the lake,” she said. “I worry about the people who have been taken away; they were brave to speak their mind and didn’t do anything wrong.”

“The likelihood that the leadership … ends zero-covid in response to protests is small, both because of the precedent it would set and because ceasing efforts to contain the virus now would rapidly lead to the healthcare system being overwhelmed,” wrote Williams, the economist.

Nationalist commentators, without presenting proof, accused protesters of colluding with hostile foreign forces.

Twitter grapples with Chinese spam obscuring news of protests

“Whenever there are some tragedies in China, [the West] will go all the way to fan the flames and instigate Chinese people to make riots,” popular nationalist commentator Ming Jinwei wrote in a Monday post that warned of a potential color revolution. The term refers to massive anti-regime protests such as Ukraine’s Orange Revolution, which many officials in Moscow and Beijing say were directed by the West.

“They examine problems in Chinese society with a magnifying glass and would turn every fire, every traffic accident, into an attack” on China’s political system, he said.

Chinese officials have not directly acknowledged the demonstrations, though Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said at a Monday briefing that there was no need for concern over the safety of residents in China. He also accused human rights activists in exile, who have stepped up their criticism of Beijing in recent days, of having “ulterior motives.”

When asked whether China would consider ending the zero covid policy following widespread protests, Zhao said Beijing would keep battling the pandemic with “optimized” measures in line with existing policy and under Communist Party leadership.