HONG KONG — Chinese authorities are moving to ease strict “covid zero” controls, in an apparent response to a nationwide wave of protests that have otherwise been suppressed.
Sun Chunlan, the vice premier in charge of pandemic response, said China faced “a new situation and new tasks in epidemic prevention and control” as the coronavirus weakened, according to a Xinhua report, the Chinese state news agency.
In a meeting with experts from the National Health Commission on Wednesday, Sun stressed the importance of improving treatment measures, preparing medicines and other medical resources, and increasing vaccinations, especially among the elderly population.
In particular, Sun did not mention President Xi Jinping’s “dynamic zero covid” policy that has guided China’s response to the pandemic and made it an exception among the world’s major economies, all of which have lifted most of their covid restrictions.
Although Chinese officials announced an easing of covid measures last month, they say strict controls have been maintained to save lives in an under-vaccinated population that has barely been exposed to the virus. In recent weeks, outbreaks caused by the highly transmissible omicron variant have left millions of people confined to their homes.
Lockdowns are now being lifted in more and more places, including the capital Beijing, which reported a record 5,043 new infections on Thursday. from 1,648 a week ago. Local officials said Wednesday that people who don’t need to leave home, such as seniors and remote workers, would be exempt from mass testing.
Claire Han, a Beijing resident, said the general rules remained strict, with dine-in service prohibited at restaurants and a PCR test within the last 48 hours required to enter most venues.
“The current policy is confusing and unclear. I’m not sure if it will get better or worse,” Han, 41, told NBC News on Thursday. “My friends and I have stored a lot of food at home in case the policy gets stricter again.”
Han added: “It seems that some local governments are willing to listen or even respond to our needs, but government authorities have generally shown no such signs.”
Easings have also been announced in major cities, including Guangzhou, Zhengzhou and Chongqing. Covid riots in Guangzhou began in mid-November and continued into Tuesday night, while Zhengzhou was the site of protests by workers at the world’s largest iPhone factory last week.
Government announcements this week about easing restrictions have made no mention of protests that have broken out across China in recent days, with crowds demanding an end to Covid rules that they say contributed to a deadly fire in the western region. from Xinjiang. Some protesters went further, calling for democratic reforms and even Xi’s resignation, in a show of defiance not seen since he came to power in 2012.
Chinese authorities have mostly quelled the protests, with a heavy police presence at former protester hangouts. But experts have suggested that the protesters could find a new focal point in former Chinese President Jiang Zemin, whose death at 96 on Wednesday sparked a wave of nostalgia among people who associate him with relatively greater freedom compared to Xi.
Jiang rose to power just after the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989 and led China through a decade of breakneck economic growth. A state funeral will be held next Tuesday at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, state media reported Thursday, with Xi chairing the funeral committee.
Like other Chinese leaders, Jiang showed little tolerance for dissent, jailing activists and banning the Falun Gong religious movement. But the political environment has hardened greatly under Xi, leading some in China to reassess Jiang’s legacy.
“Now they’ve pushed people over the edge, to the point where I think ‘Toad’ isn’t that bad,” Umi Yang, in her 20s from Beijing, told NBC News on Wednesday, using a nickname for Jiang who stems from his trademark glasses.
Commenters expressed similar sentiments online, where toad references and images were censored.
“I was born in the 1990s,” wrote one user on the Weibo social media platform. “I can’t remember exactly what I did in childhood, but I can remember that the color was bright, free and relaxed. RIP Grandpa Jiang.”
dawn liu, Eric Baculinao, hannah lee, dorothy cam Y Jace Zhang contributed.