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China loosens COVID curbs following protests

December 8, 2022

After three years of sporadic but full-scale lockdowns, Chinese people took to the streets. Now China's leaders are responding by loosening restrictions without abandoning the country's "zero COVID" strategy.

Medical workers take nucleic acid samples for a citizen in Hohhot, Inner Mongolia autonomous region, China earlier in the week
China is loosening but not eliminating COVID-19 restrictions in response to popular anger over the country's "zero COVID" strategyImage: CFOTO/picture alliance

Chinese cities began to relax strict COVID curbs Thursday following three years of strict lockdowns and testing regimens that have halted entire industries, paralyzed cities and sent people into the streets to demand a change of leadership.

Starting on Friday, Shanghai city authorities said there will no longer be a requirement for people to show negative test results to enter restaurants and entertainment venues.

Meanwhile, an AFP journalist said traffic in the capital Beijing was at about half its normal capacity following a surge in cases that forced school and business closures.

As restrictions loosened up though, authorities in many Chinese cities though continued to remind residents to be vigilant against the spread of the coronavirus.

In Zhengzhou, home to Foxconn's massive iPhone factory, city authorities reminded residents: "The general public should maintain a good awareness of personal protection, and be the first responsible person for their own health."

China loosens nationwide COVID-19 restrictions

What do we know about the new rules?

On Wednesday, China's National Health Commission announced the policy shift. Infected individuals with mild symptoms are now able to quarantine at home instead of a government facility.

Testing and health status checks on mobile apps were also dropped as requisites for traveling around China.

The frequency and need for a negative PCR test is being reduced though not eliminated and centers offering free overnight PCR tests have suddenly become harder to locate.

The length of lockdowns now officially has the limit of five days after zero new cases, whereas before a lockdown could be open-ended in length.

State media said ticket sales for domestic travel soared after the announcement while others posted on social media that they were positive for COVID, something that has carried enormous social stigma in China.

China's once-successful hardline approach could make reopening more difficult

Recent announcements have not referenced the country's stated policy of "zero COVID" or the recent protests that appear to have helped prompt the changes. 

Many workplaces continue to require proof of negative status.

A wave of infections is expected to follow the loosening of restrictions. Some analysts say China may struggle to deal with it, given the sub-optimal efficacy of their domestic vaccines, comparatively low vaccination rates, and the reduced public exposure to the virus caused by its draconian approach so far. 

Last month saw widespread protests across China, seemingly stemming from public anger after residents in the western Chinese Xinjiang province being bolted in their homes, unable to escape during a house fire.

Urumqi Lockdown Fire

In the streets of several cities, people called for freedoms in an outburst that is highly unusual in heavily policed China.

ar/msh (AFP, Reuters)