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China moves to ease ‘zero covid’ but tightens vise on protesters

Chinese flags were lowered to half-staff in Shanghai on Thursday to commemorate the death of former president Jiang Zemin. (Aly Song/Reuters)
7 min

China offered the clearest sign so far that it might end its three-year pursuit of “zero covid,” with major cities loosening some control measures even as cases continued to climb. But authorities also imposed tighter censorship controls and issued stark warnings of a crackdown ahead of potential protests.

Vice Premier Sun Chunlan, who heads covid response efforts, said at a meeting of health officials that China faces a “new reality” because the omicron coronavirus variant is less deadly and there has been an expansion in vaccine coverage and health-care preparedness, state media reported late Wednesday.

Many Chinese associate Sun, who is expected to leave her post in the coming months, with the harshest aspects of the zero covid policy, including sudden lockdowns, mass testing and mandatory centralized quarantine for close contacts.

Protests against China’s “zero covid” policy spread to cities around the country on Nov. 27. (Video: Julie Yoon/The Washington Post)

It was a rare instance of a senior Chinese official publicly acknowledging that the virus now poses less severe risks. The megalopolises of Beijing, Chongqing and Guangzhou said Wednesday that they would allow some close contacts of infected people to quarantine at home. It was not clear whether this would be the case across the country, though mandatory centralized quarantine in spartan facilities has been one of the most controversial aspects of zero covid.

Mass-testing requirements would also be relaxed, even as cases in those cities continued climbing. Beijing said Thursday that it logged a record 5,000-plus infections in the previous day. Tough lockdown measures had been in place in parts of these cities as recently as Tuesday.

Chinese health officials have also said they would prioritize getting booster doses to seniors, which global experts say is key to any reopening. Vaccine hesitancy remains high among China’s elderly, though the independent financial publication Caixin reported Thursday that China is aiming to ensure that 90 percent of those over 80 are up to date on their vaccinations by late January.

Sun and other high-level health commission officials also notably did not use the phrase “dynamic zero covid,” which is associated with the aggressive measures that Beijing has pursued since the coronavirus was first detected in Wuhan in late 2019. The policy is linked with loyalty to President Xi Jinping, who has tried to assert near-absolute control as he claims an unprecedented third term as China’s top leader.

But the policy and Xi, as well as the ruling Communist Party, have been the target of growing public grievances that culminated in the extremely rare nationwide protests that began last week.

Protests in China frustrate Xi’s agenda of expanding political control

Analysts say Beijing is adopting a two-track approach. On the one hand, it will loosen some virus restrictions to appease public anger. On the other, it will use censorship, propaganda and force to prevent the protests from escalating into a movement that could pose an existential threat to the regime.

While the demonstrations appear to have fizzled out in the face of icy temperatures in northern China and the start of the workweek, local governments pledged to crack down on protesters with an iron-fist approach and made the unsupported claim that demonstrators were separatists and seditionists, state media said Wednesday.

From Beijing to Shanghai, police officers visited suspected protesters at home in the middle of the night, while stopping people for random checks in city streets and searching their phones for banned communication apps. Half a dozen people interviewed by The Washington Post said they and their family and friends had been questioned and detained, some for more than 24 hours. Lawyers have also said they were familiar with more than 20 such encounters.

Activists were also concerned about Tibet and Xinjiang, two regions with significant ethnic minority populations that had been the subject of harsh rule even before the pandemic. Hopes had been raised after new leaders were appointed for the regions over the past year that Beijing would be willing to ease some social restrictions to support economic development.

But the recent protests, which were triggered after a fire in Xinjiang last week that killed 10, have raised fears of a return to heavy-handed measures.

Ma Xingrui, the Communist Party boss in Xinjiang, convened security-related meetings for three consecutive days, state media reported. On Monday, he told officials to monitor public opinion more closely, step up censorship and push back against “wrong ideology.” Harsh penalties would be meted out if people engaged in activities that “disrupt the order of covid prevention,” he said.

In China, former president Jiang’s death comes at an unsettled time

Tibetan authorities also warned of separatist and national security crimes, which carry penalties such as long prison sentences, though they offered no evidence that separatists were involved in the recent demonstrations. Officials in Lhasa, the regional capital, also pledged a crackdown on violations of pandemic control measures.

Lhasa had teased a reopening in October after months of lockdown. Dorje Gyaltshen, a 26-year-old Tibetan restaurant worker, told The Washington Post that he had been stuck in his small, rented room in Lhasa for almost three months.

But transport services connecting the region to much of the rest of the country were restored only in late November. Restaurants and supermarkets in Urumqi, the regional capital of Xinjiang, were allowed to reopen on Monday, days after residents protested the distancing measures that many believe delayed rescue efforts during last week’s deadly blaze.

The warnings by Tibetan and Xinjiang authorities were published by state media late Wednesday, as Sun hinted that the country might turn a page on zero covid.

It was not immediately possible to confirm conditions in the two regions. Phone calls made by The Post to two Tibet-based activists appeared to be blocked. Yang, a protester in the resort town of Dali, said he had been unable to reach friends in the two regions since the fire. He spoke on the condition that only his last name be used for fear of reprisal.

One question is how long it will take for China to transition out of zero covid, if Beijing ultimately decides to do so. On Wednesday, the National Bureau of Statistics reported further contraction in the country’s manufacturing sector, while financial publication Caixin said that the unemployment rate was at its highest since March 2020.

In the Chinese economic hub of Guangzhou, multiple districts canceled mass testing and allowed for the resumption of indoor dining and public transportation. Haizhu, the center of Guangzhou’s latest covid outbreak and the site of an apparent violent clash between police and residents on Tuesday night, allowed businesses to reopen and rolled back some strict controls that stranded residents at home for weeks.

Capital Economics, a consultancy, forecast that the Chinese economy will contract in the fourth quarter and is likely to “remain weak” in the immediate future.

“We think that preparing the elderly and healthcare system for a move away from the zero-COVID policy will take longer than many assume. In the meantime, localized lockdowns will continue to weigh heavily on the services sector,” it wrote in a research note Thursday.

Some Chinese human rights activists claimed a victory after the most significant non-state-sanctioned protests in China since the 1989 Tiananmen demonstration.

“No matter how the ‘blank paper revolution’ ends, the younger generations in China have expressed their opinions … and left a heavy mark on history,” tweeted Han Lianchao, a former Chinese diplomat and activist, referring to protesters holding up blank sheets of paper to symbolize Beijing’s censorship. He added that their biggest achievement was poking a hole in Xi’s claim to represent the whole country.