February 9, 2023

Authorities were slow to respond, deliberately avoiding legitimizing protesters’ concerns until Wednesday afternoon when China’s National Health Commission acknowledged the “practical problems of the people”. Suddenly, the country’s top health agency said for the first time that Omicron was not as serious as other tribes, eliminating a major health rationale for the government’s crackdowns.

Deputy Prime Minister Sun Chunlan, the government’s top COVID fighter, said it was time to change strategy. Sun, who oversaw the world’s first lockdown in Wuhan in January 2020, did not once mention the zero-COVID doctrine that has defined her stance since the early days of the pandemic.

Chinese Vice Premier Sun Chunlan, also the current main COVID fighter, in 2018.Credit:AP

“As the Omicron variant becomes less pathogenic, more people are vaccinated and our experience in COVID prevention accumulates, our fight against the pandemic is entering a new phase and new tasks are added,” she said Wednesday night, referring to the ability of the virus to cause serious illness.

On Thursday, the Chinese government-controlled media was full of research from a virology lab at Wuhan University showing that “the pathogenicity of Omicron has decreased dramatically compared to the original strain of the coronavirus and other variants.” The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published the same findings in January. Imperial College London followed in March.

But after 10 months of declining confidence, rising financial pressures and the threat of political instability, the Chinese government said it was ready to consider a different strategy. The country had just hit 40,000 new cases per day.

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“It proves time and time again that protests in China work,” wrote Yaqiu Wang, a senior China researcher for Human Rights Watch who has been forced to leave the country.

“If you are willing to take the risk and stand up, you will get what you want, at least part of it. The CCP is the biggest paper tiger, whose power rests on your fear. When you are no longer afraid, poof, it melts.”

In Chongqing, which recorded a record 648 cases in 12 months on Tuesday, officials said they would allow close contacts of infected people to self-quarantine at home. Guangzhou, which had recorded 1,529 cases the previous day, said it would end mass PCR testing and end lockdowns for half of its districts. Zhengzhou, home to one of the world’s largest iPhone factories and the scene of some of the largest anti-lockdown protests, followed suit.

“Most Chinese people are no longer afraid of being infected,” said Hu Xijin, one of Beijing’s top propagandists. “China may emerge from the shadow of COVID-19 faster than expected.”

Markets reacted, rising nearly 2 percent on the mainland and 4 percent in Hong Kong. Despite the domestic turmoil, the value of mainland and Hong Kong stocks grew by more than $3 trillion in November alone, indicating that investors are more optimistic about China’s acceleration out of the pandemic than many of those on the ground.

An epidemic control worker walks past closed stores in a closed-off area in Beijing on Dec. 1.

Credit:Getty Images

“The Chinese economy is not performing well at the moment and as we can see, many shops are closed,” said a 70-year-old Wuhan retiree who asked not to be identified on Thursday.

“If this situation continues, young people will have no job and no income. If the country’s economy is not growing, the government has no revenue.”

The message from the summit has not reached all local officials. In Shanghai, there were warnings to residents on Thursday to prepare for the possibility of another lockdown. Video surfaced of a local committee blocking the exit of a building with barbed wire. The city of Jinzhou in Liaoning province said it would continue to follow a zero-COVID strategy and blamed other provinces for failing to implement the policy.

Mitul Kotecha, head of emerging markets at TD Securities, said the road ahead was fraught with difficulties.

“Any opening will probably be very slow and gradual to avoid putting pressure on the health system and unfortunately this will come at the cost of economic recovery in the coming months,” he said.

“Despite protests, we don’t think the government is about to open the door to a rapid easing of COVID restrictions given the lack of boosters for the elderly population, the relatively low efficacy of China’s vaccines and limited capacity at the intensive care.”

Only 60 percent of China’s population over the age of 80 has been vaccinated, leaving millions of people vulnerable to the disease. Health authorities are hesitant to impose mandates on a population weary of vaccination after past scandals. On Thursday, Chinese financial news center Caixin reported that state authorities would urge local administrators to raise that figure above 90 percent.

“[We must] speed up vaccination, especially the vaccination of the elderly,” said Xia Gang, a National Health Commission official. “I hope that elderly friends will actively complete the vaccination as soon as possible to protect the health of themselves and their families.”

Former Chinese President Jiang Zemin, who has died aged 96, with former Australian Prime Minister John Howard.Credit:Michael Bowers

Xia spoke just hours before one of the country’s elder statesmen, former president Jiang Zemin, died. Three of China’s most significant periods of civil unrest coincided with the death of one of its leaders: Prime Minister Zhou Enlai in 1967; Hu Yaobang in April 1989, when the Tiananmen Square protests began; and now Jiang, as the country’s citizens lash out against COVID-19 restrictions and in some quarters against the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party and President Xi Jinping himself.

In the days following his death, Jiang’s cosmopolitan but controversial period in power contrasted with Xi’s authoritarian rule. China’s Weibo social media service was filled with tributes to Jiang on Thursday. “RIP, to you, and the era,” said one user, reflecting on China’s entry into the World Trade Organization and a decade of relatively liberal economic growth.

A protester in Wuzhen this week. Credit:Fairfax Media

In the historic city of Wuzhen, Zhejiang Province, a young woman was walking down the street. She covered her arms with chains and put black tape over her mouth while holding a blank white paper, a symbol of the growing “A4 revolution” that Xi’s censorship regime has condemned across China.

Official government websites and newspapers went black and white in mourning for the 96-year-old, but photos spread on WeChat of Xi as “the only person of color” — a phrase that, when read aloud in Chinese, resembles “dictator”.

The most vociferous members of this week’s protests have already been rounded up by state security, but many thousands more are still raging over a system they believe has failed to bring them economic prosperity and robbed them of their human rights.

Wang Dan, one of the leaders of the Tiananmen Square protests, now based in the United States, gave them some advice this week.

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“It’s a long battle,” he said. “There has to be a rhythm. Back off when you should so you can move on.

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