Scenes from China are being condemned around the globe as the country chases Covid-zero. The reason has nothing to do with the virus.
Violent clashes between anti-lockdown protesters and police in China have been widely condemned as the country chases its Covid-zero policy while the rest of the world moves on.
More than three years after the pandemic started in Wuhan, Chinese authorities continue to come down hard on those breaking strict rules around movement in public places.
As the world’s attention turns to the increasingly chaotic scenes in cities across China, one question continues to be asked — why the seemingly-unending pursuit of an unachievable goal?
The reason might have nothing to do with the virus.
Epidemic control workers walk across a road in an area with communities in lockdown on December 1, 2022 in Beijing, China.
As Michael Schuman writes in The Atlantic, the motivation for pushing Covid-zero so hard has little to do with the virus and lots to do with China’s culture.
“Reversing the policy could be interpreted by the Chinese public as an admission of error or failure — intolerable to a Communist Party that presents itself as infallible,” he writes.
“The leadership seems to still believe that the virus can be defeated if the Chinese masses struggle and sacrifice. Other countries may have given up and allowed the virus to run rampant, but China is made of sterner stuff.”
Authors of an article in The Economist on Thursday shared a similar sentiment, suggesting that Xi Jinping is facing a critical decision that will define his leadership.
“Lockdowns have become China’s undoing,” the authors wrote.
“A combination of protests and rising cases means that Mr Xi will have to navigate between mass lockdowns and mass infection — and possibly end up with both.
“The coming months will pose the biggest threat to his rule since he came to power in 2012 and the biggest threat to the authority of the Communist Party since the protests around Tiananmen Square in 1989.”
The pressure on Xi to end lockdowns comes as China’s top Covid official gives the first sign that the hardline stance could be softening.
Anger over China’s zero-Covid policy — which involves mass lockdowns, constant testing and quarantines even for people who are not infected — has sparked protests in major cities, including Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou.
People hold sheets of blank paper in protest of COVID restriction in mainland as police setup cordon during a vigil in the central district on November 28, 2022 in Hong Kong, China.
But while authorities have called for a “crackdown” in the wake of the demonstrations, they have also begun hinting that a relaxation of the hardline virus strategy could be in the works.
Speaking at the National Health Commission Wednesday, Vice Premier Sun Chunlan said the Omicron variant was weakening and vaccination rates were improving, according to the state-run Xinhua news agency.
Sun, a central figure behind Beijing’s pandemic response, said this “new situation” required “new tasks”.
She made no mention of the zero-Covid policy in her latest remarks, suggesting an approach that has disrupted the economy and daily life might soon be relaxed.
The elderly, those who work from home, students and teachers in online education and others who do not leave home frequently are now exempt from daily tests, Xu Hejian, a spokesman for the Beijing Municipal Government, said Wednesday.
Beijing residents still require a negative Covid test taken within 48 hours to enter public places such as cafes, restaurants and shopping malls, however.
And a report by the state-owned Southern Metropolis Daily Thursday said that local officials in Beijing and Guangzhou were planning to allow some positive Covid cases to quarantine at home instead of at state-run facilities.
A woman faces riot police in China this week as protests continue over the country’s Covid-zero approach to the pandemic.
The report was later deleted, and AFP requests for confirmation from local authorities in those cities went unanswered.
Southern manufacturing hub Guangzhou — the site of dramatic Tuesday night clashes between police and protesters — also announced an end to daily mass testing for those who do not need to leave home frequently, including the elderly and infants.
On Thursday, Haizhu district, where recent protests took place, went a step further, saying only those in certain sectors including medical staff, pharmacists, sanitary and delivery workers require daily tests.
Officials the previous day also partially lifted a weeks-long lockdown, despite seeing record virus cases, easing restrictions to varying degrees in all of its 11 districts, including Haizhu.
The central city of Chongqing also said Wednesday that close contacts of Covid cases who met certain conditions would be allowed to quarantine at home — a departure from rules that required them to be sent to central isolation facilities.
Sun’s remarks — as well as relaxations of rules by local authorities — “could signal that China is beginning to consider the end of its stringent zero-Covid policy,” ANZ Research analysts said.
“We believe that Chinese authorities are shifting to a ‘living with Covid’ stance, as reflected in new rules that allow people to do ‘home isolation’ instead of being ferried away to quarantine facilities.”
The country reported 35,800 domestic covid cases on Thursday, most of them asymptomatic.