Beijing marginally eases covid curbs, in hopes of soothing civil unrest

Photo: Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

The Chinese government is set to ease its COVID-19 quarantine protocols and reduce the number of mass testing in the coming days, a significant shift in policy after widespread protests were sparked over its strict covid policies.

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Authorities announcing the easing of restrictions in their areas didn't mention the protests, the biggest show of civil disobedience in China for years, ranging from candle-lit vigils in Beijing to street clashes with police in Guangzhou. Instead, cited that the ability of the virus to cause disease was weakening.

Among the measures to be announced are a reduction in mass testing and regular nucleic acid tests, as well as allowing positive cases and close contacts to isolate at home, according to reports.

The new protocols are a far cry from earlier policies, which left communities locked down for weeks after just one positive case, resulting in public frustration.

The frustration boiled over last week in unprecedented public protests in mainland China since President Xi Jinping took power in 2012, and come as the economy enters a new era of slower growth.

China Dissent Monitor, run by U.S. government-funded Freedom House, estimated at least 27 demonstrations took place across China from Saturday to Monday. Australia's ASPI think tank estimated 51 protests in 24 cities.

At least seven districts of Guangzhou have lifted temporary lockdowns less than 24 hours after violent protests on Tuesday. One district said it would allow schools, restaurants, and businesses, including cinemas, to reopen. Cities including Chongqing and Zhengzhou also announced easings.

Vice Premier Sun Chunlan, who oversees COVID efforts, said the virus's ability to cause disease was weakening. The mention of a weakening pathogenicity contrasts with earlier messages from authorities about the deadliness of the virus.

Expectations have grown around the world that China, while still trying to contain infections, could look to re-open its borders at some point next year once it achieves better vaccination rates among its hesitant elderly.

Initial dips in Chinese stocks and markets were experienced after the protests in Shanghai and Beijing over the weekend, but they recovered as public pressure led authorities to take a different tack.

As a result of strict containment measures in China, the country's economy has been sluggish this year, and supply chain interruptions have spilled over to other countries.

While the change in tone on COVID appears a response to the public discontent with strict measures, authorities are also seeking out for questioning those present at the demonstrations.

The Chinese authorities cite the reduction of the virus’ potency as the reason to ease the restrictions, while making no mention of the public outrage. The Communist Party continues to investigate those involved in the civil movement and shows no signs of easing its recent tightening of internet monitoring.