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China pledges to slowly exit ‘zero covid’

Pandemic prevention workers in Beijing on Friday. (Thomas Peter/Reuters)

China’s coronavirus czar said the country would take “baby steps” in extricating itself from a three-year pursuit of “zero covid,” the comments coming after authorities stepped up censorship efforts in response to rare mass protests and ahead of a state funeral for a former leader.

“We should prioritize stability while pursuing progress — take baby steps, but don’t stop going, to optimize the covid policy,” Vice Premier Sun Chunlan, who heads China’s coronavirus response efforts, said during a panel discussion with health workers on Thursday.

Sun, widely regarded as the face of China’s lockdown measures, had said Wednesday that the country is facing a “new reality” as the virus poses a lesser threat. She convened panel discussions on consecutive days — a rare move — amid widespread confusion over Beijing’s messaging, which had recently pushed local governments to loosen measures before imposing lockdowns again as infections continued to climb.

Her remarks were the surest sign that Beijing is moving to end a virus-eradication effort that has saved many lives, though at the high cost of sudden lockdowns, mass testing, sealed borders and a sluggish economy.

Chinese health officials also said this week they would prioritize getting booster doses to seniors, which global experts say is key to any reopening. Caixin, an independent financial publication, reported Thursday that China aims to ensure that 90 percent of residents over 80 are up to date on their vaccinations by late January.

Beijing has not offered a timetable on exiting zero covid, but some health experts say the strictest measures could be lifted by the middle of next year.

“China should be ready to overhaul the current zero-covid policy in the first half of 2023, no later than the summer,” said Zhao Dahai, executive director at a health policy center jointly run by Shanghai Jiao Tong University and Yale. He noted that a new variant of the coronavirus that is more severe than omicron could put a halt to any reopening.

What you need to know about China’s covid protests

After protests against zero covid spread to more than a dozen metropolises, some of China’s largest cities this week started lifting lockdowns, canceling mass testing and allowing some close contacts to quarantine at home. But measures that have long been phased out elsewhere in the world, such as testing requirements to access public entertainments spaces, remained in the southern economic hub of Guangzhou.

Urumqi, the capital of China’s northwestern Xinjiang region, on Friday announced a phased reopening of restaurants, malls and ski resorts in the coming days. More residents were allowed to travel within the city, though 373 residential compounds remained locked down. A deadly fire in the city, which many Chinese believe was worsened by coronavirus distancing measures, had been the trigger for the recent wave of protests.

China reported almost 35,000 new infections Friday — a high number by its standards — even as more cities paused mass-testing requirements.

Some local leaders in China’s rust-belt regions have been more reluctant to loosen controls, in part because zero covid was linked with loyalty to President Xi Jinping, who has tried to assert near-absolute control as he enters an unprecedented third term as China’s top leader.

Authorities in Jinzhou, a coastal city in northeastern China, issued a notice Thursday pledging commitment to the policy. “If we keep with the existing measures for another few days, we can announce a full victory,” the notice read, adding that “it would be such a shame when we can eliminate the virus but don’t do it.”

After backlash from residents, Jinzhou announced early Friday that it would instead lift a lockdown on much of the city.

Top Chinese officials have not directly acknowledged the rallies, which are the largest non-state-sanctioned demonstrations since the Tiananmen protests of 1989. But they have made the unsupported accusation that hostile foreign forces were meddling with social order. A senior health official also said Tuesday that the public had no issue with zero covid but was unhappy about how local governments implemented the policy.

Analysts say these moves are out of the Chinese playbook for handling what Beijing calls “mass incidents.”

“In the official narrative, the protests didn’t even exist,” said Wang Zhi’an, a Tokyo-based independent Chinese-politics commentator who was formerly a top state media journalist. He noted that some local officials had branded protesters as separatists and seditionists, in an attempt to create “an us-versus-them struggle against external enemies.”

Search engines and other internet companies were also told to block access to virtual private networks (VPNs), according to a memo purportedly from China’s internet regulator that circulated online. The Washington Post could not immediately authenticate the memo, but the Wall Street Journal reported Thursday that tech companies had been ordered to expand their censorship teams and clamp down on discussion of the demonstrations and the Xinjiang fire.

The Cyberspace Administration of China did not immediately return a request for comment Friday.

Chinese censors had struggled to clamp down on videos of protests that were widely shared over the weekend. Many clips and photos were also posted to Twitter, which is blocked by China’s “Great Firewall” and can be accessed in the country only through a VPN.

“The targeting of VPNs has to be seen within this context,” said Manya Koetse, an analyst of Chinese social media trends. “If more videos or information jumps across the Great Firewall of China, then obviously it’s outside the control of China’s online censorship machine.”

Chinese police are knocking on protesters’ doors, searching cellphones

The increased caution comes amid nationwide public mourning for former president Jiang Zemin, who died Wednesday. While Jiang was not a liberal reformer, he is recalled as a more open-minded and tolerant ruler than Xi, and many mourners gathered outside his former residence near Shanghai on Thursday evening.

China’s leaders are wary of periods immediately after the death of top officials. The Tiananmen protests, for instance, began after the death of Hu Yaobang, a liberal-minded Communist Party chief. Jiang’s state funeral is scheduled for Tuesday.

The odds of another major round of protests soon are small as long as the public is convinced zero covid is coming to an end, said Wang, the commentator.

“Most of the local protests were targeting lockdown and control measures that impeded people’s daily life. When that issue is resolved, there is not enough motivation for large group action,” he said, though he warned that now the “people’s rights awareness are awakened and it’s not easy to undo that.”

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