China is softening its tone on the severity of COVID-19 and easing some coronavirus restrictions after anger over the world’s worst pandemic curbs sparked protests in several cities across the country, some leading to clashes with police.
With daily cases remaining near record levels even after extended lockdowns, Chinese Vice Premier Sun Chunlan, who oversees the country’s response to the coronavirus, said the virus’s ability to cause disease was waning.
“The country is facing a new situation and new tasks in epidemic prevention and control as the pathogenicity of the Omicron virus decreases, more people are vaccinated and more experience is gained in containing the virus,” state media reported.
Sun also pushed for further “optimization” of testing, treatment and quarantine policies.
The mention of weakening pathogenicity contrasts sharply with previous reports from authorities about the virus’s lethality and the need to eradicate it.
Several cities continued to ease district lockdowns and allow businesses to reopen, though they made no direct reference to the protests that gained momentum after a fire killed 10 people in the locked-down Xinjiang town of Urumqi on Friday.
In the southern city of Guangzhou, officials in at least seven districts announced in statements that they would lift the temporary lockdowns, a day after protesters in the southern city clashed with police over continued restrictions on residents’ daily lives. One district said it would resume in-person classes in schools and reopen restaurants and other businesses, including movie theaters.
China’s lockdowns are stricter than those imposed in Western countries – people are usually locked up at home for extended periods of time and subjected to regular mass testing.
Al Jazeera’s Patrick Fok, reporting from Hong Kong, said protests have taken a violent turn in Guangzhou, which has been hit hard by the recent wave of infections.
“The unrest marks the escalation of a movement that has spread to several major cities,” said Fok.
“The latest developments come despite stern warnings against participating in demonstrations,” he said, adding that China’s top security agency has called for a crackdown on what it says are “hostile forces”.
However, it’s unclear who or what the government is referring to, Fok said, and it has yet to provide evidence of any external interference.
Some protesters and foreign security experts said the death of former President Jiang Zemin, who led the country into a decade of rapid economic growth after the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989, set a new rallying point for protests on Wednesday. could be three years after the first cases of the virus were identified in the central city of Wuhan.
Jiang’s legacy was discussed in protesters’ Telegram groups, with some saying it gave them a legitimate reason to come together.
‘Sign of weakness’
China Dissent Monitor, run by the US government-funded Freedom House, estimated at least 27 demonstrations took place across China from Saturday to Monday. The Australian ASPI think tank estimated 43 protests in 22 cities.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Wednesday that people in every country should be able to “express their frustration” through peaceful protests.
“In any country where we see that happening and then we see the government taking massive repressive measures to stop it, that’s not a sign of strength, that’s a sign of weakness,” Blinken said.
The Global Times, a state-run tabloid, reported this week that several cities were “optimizing” their response “to take more targeted, science-based actions to curb flare-ups,” reflecting advice on how best to to respond to COVID-19 announced earlier this month.
Curbs have also been eased in southwestern Chongqing, where close contacts at home are allowed to be isolated, while downtown Zhengzhou, the site of a major Foxconn factory that makes Apple iPhones and which has been the scene of recent turmoil over COVID, has seen the “orderly” Resumption of businesses, including supermarkets, gyms and restaurants.
Earlier, national health officials said China would respond to “urgent concerns” from the public and that COVID rules should be implemented more flexibly.
The Global Times, a state-run tabloid, said several cities were now “optimizing” their response “to take more targeted, science-based actions to curb flare-ups,” following advice on COVID-19 responses announced earlier this month.
COVID has spread despite China largely isolating itself from the world and demanding sacrifices of hundreds of millions to comply with brutal testing and isolation.
While the country’s death toll remains low by global standards, analysts said reopening before increasing vaccination rates could lead to widespread illness and deaths.
On Tuesday, the government announced it would ramp up vaccination for people over 80, the group most at risk for COVID-19.
Xia Gang, a National Health Commission official in charge of immunization services, said the gap between primary and booster vaccinations for the elderly would be reduced to three months.