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China rolls back COVID restrictions amid rare protests

December 1, 2022

Authorities in at least seven districts in Guangzhou have announced lifting temporary lockdowns. A China monitor told DW it remained to be seen whether Beijing follows through, and whether the changes satisfy protesters.

Riot police in anti-virus protection suits walk down a street during a protest in Guangzhou
Chinese officials have suggested that the threat posed by the virus is weakeningImage: REUTERS

China's controversial zero-COVID strategy seems to be receding, as officials signal eased restrictions following rare protests in several major cities.

In the manufacturing hub of Guangzhou, at least seven districts lifted temporary lockdowns on Wednesday, including in Haizhu, which witnessed protests recently. Restrictions were also eased in the central city of Chongqing.

China is also set to allow some people who tested positive for COVID-19 to quarantine at home, according to a Reuters report on Thursday which cited two sources with knowledge of the matter.

"I think it reflects some level of official awareness of popular unhappiness about the COVID restrictions," Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch, told DW on Thursday. 

"But I think it remains to be seen whether those relaxations actually will happen, whether people believe that they are happening and whether the authorities change their mind and reimpose these stricter constraints if indeed case numbers surge."

COVID virus threat 'weakening'

Chinese Vice Premier Sun Chunlan, who oversees the country's anti-COVID efforts, said the virus was becoming less capable of causing disease.

"The country is facing a new situation and new tasks in epidemic prevention and control as the pathogenicity of the omicron virus weakens, more people are vaccinated and experience in containing the virus is accumulated," she told Chinese state media.

Sun also called for the "optimization" of testing, treatment and quarantine policies. 

Her statements mark a significant departure from China's official line of imposing draconian lockdown measures, at the time when other major economies have left lockdowns behind. 

Chinese officials past and present play down protests

Sun made no mention of the protests which have gripped several parts of the country since the weekend. 

The movement is arguably the biggest wave of civil disobedience mainland China has seen since Tiananmen in 1989.

Demonstrators protesting over coronavirus disease (COVID-19) restrictions throw glass bottles at riot police in Guangzhou
Sun's latest statements come amid arguably the biggest wave of civil disobedience mainland China has seen since Tiananmen in 1989Image: REUTERS

Former Chinese official Victor Gao, who now runs the Center for China and Globalization think tank, told DW that the protests "are very unfortunate things because they [the protesters] do not know that the transition [toward a looser COVID strategy] has already started from the end of October." 

However, Gao also said "reports about the massive amount of protests in China are very much exaggerated and do not reflect the real dynamics on the ground in China," arguing that while protests did take place in some cities, "they died down." 

"If anyone believe that instability and chaos may break out in China, this kind of view is completely out of touch," the government-friendly analyst said.

Richardson of Human Rights Watch said it was too early to say what might happen to protesters detained this week. Some of them were likely to be charged with what she called Chinese authorities' "favorite" charges, "like picking quarrels or stirring up trouble." 

"The censorship machinery is certainly working hard, both, I think, to prevent discussions about developments, but also to keep people from organizing. But I think it will be in the coming days and weeks when we're able to discern whether there's a pattern with respect, particularly, to detentions and charges," she said.

Zero-COVID strategy reducing numbers, and prolonging the risk?

Despite being the country where COVID originated, China's draconian tactics have kept per-capita case numbers and casualties among the lowest anywhere in the world, at least according to official data. However, numbers have been steadily rising in recent months despite the continued restrictions.

The quality of available vaccines in China is also not optimal, and restrictions mean a smaller proportion of the population has been exposed to the virus, meaning fewer people are likely to have "hybrid immunity" as they do in much of the world in the mean time. 

Nevertheless, Gao hailed the strategy as a success overall.

"No other country can ever think about matching China's great achievements in saving many people from death and saving as many people as possible from infections," he said.

Richardson, meanwhile, said the time to treat COVID with the extreme caution seen around the world in 2020 had passed, particularly from a human rights perspective, given the other available tools like vaccines.

"Let's be clear, these are polices that have people lacking access to food, have people locked down and unable to access medical care for other conditions, have people locked in buildings that are on fire and can't leave," Richardson said. "So these have been very strictly imposed policies that have caused other human rights violations." 

China vows crackdown on 'hostile forces'

msh, rmt/jcg (AFP, Reuters)