Growing dissatisfaction with the Zero-COVID policy
Policies to combat coronavirus in China have been widely discussed since the beginning of the pandemic. It has been dubbed Zero-COVID because of its goal of reducing the number of new infections to zero. It is also called "dynamic cleanup" due to the severity of the anti-virus measures - "search, test, track, isolate and support" (FTTIS). This policy has also been applied in other states, such as South Korea, Taiwan and New Zealand. However, it is with China that it is most strongly associated - primarily because of its distinctively strict measures and a special emphasis on isolation.
China's Zero-COVID included strict and extended lockdowns and tight border controls between regions. Thus, Chinese citizens were prohibited from entering and leaving cities and regions prone to the epidemic. Soon, mass public testing was added to the lockdowns, followed by quarantines and contact tracing. At first, the strategy seemed relatively effective in suppressing the spread of infection and preventing excess deaths. The initial success convinced the main "architect" and supporter of the strategy, the leader of the PRC, Xi Jinping, that he was completely right and the need to stick to the plan - so Zero-COVID became the main paradigm in China's epidemic policy.
Zero-COVID has become the main paradigm in China's epidemic policy
Despite significant changes in approaches to fighting covid in other countries and the evolution of the virus itself, the main elements of the Zero-COVID strategy have remained in place in China to this day. These measures were an alternative to the failure of the vaccination campaign, to some extent due to Xi's unwillingness to rely on Western vaccines.
Xi's line was not questioned or criticized within the party and government, which explains why the anti-COVID actions also received a political vector directed against the CCP and Xi in particular. During his reign, and especially since his second term, Xi has rapidly increased his own power and increasingly curtailed the remaining freedoms. But even the Chinese population, which has not been prone to active protests in the past decade, is subject to political anxieties associated with the development of authoritarianism and the erosion of civil liberties. As a result, the accumulated feelings, superimposed on the covid crisis, resulted in mass protests.
Spread of protests
The first protest actions were held on November 15 in Guangzhou. Against the background of a record number of new infections (for the first time since April), the Chinese government began to discuss a return to a strict lockdown. Tired of the restrictions, the residents of the city reacted to this with large-scale processions. Protesters destroyed police and epidemic cordons and got into skirmishes with workers dressed in biological protection suits. However, these protests were not very actively covered in the international press, and messages on social networks were promptly cleaned up by Chinese censors. Posts about the protests, hashtags and search results on major platforms like China's Weibo were also instantly deleted. Online censorship in China has proven to be very effective in major protests as well.
On the night of November 25, demonstrations began in the city of Urumqi, Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. They were provoked by a fire in one of the houses, the residents of which were under quarantine. Firefighters could not extinguish the fire for a long time, and the residents could not get out of the building due to epidemic cordons and ceilings. As a result, 10 people died. The residents of the city blamed the government and their protracted covid restrictions. The tragedy in Urumqi was immediately followed by large-scale unrest. Despite the frosty night, crowds of protesters gathered in the central square of the city: they chanted “end the lockdown” and repeated an excerpt from the Chinese national anthem: “Get up! People who don't want to be slaves!" At the same time, the protest acquired a symbol borrowed from the Hong Kong demonstrations in 2020 - a ban on protest symbols once again pushed the protesters to the white sheet. The wave of actions became known as the "white sheet revolution".
Despite the efforts of the censors, the horrific news of the fire and the massive protests ensured that information would spread rapidly. On November 27, rallies were also held in other regions. Picket lines began to form in Shanghai and Beijing. Protests erupted at several universities in Beijing before spreading to educational institutions in Chengdu, Guangzhou and Wuhan. One of the largest centers of protest was Nanjing University.
In Shanghai, protesters first gathered for funeral processions. However, soon the inhabitants of the city moved from silence to political demands and calls for reforms. It was there that the protests turned out to be the most radical. According to social media reports , mass marches in Shanghai chanted "Resign the Communist Party, Resign Xi!" slogans rare in today's China.
Soon mass detentions, arrests and even beatings of protesters began. According to eyewitnesses, the approach of the police to the protesters changed from day to day: the longer the processions continued, the tougher, faster and more aggressively the police reacted. BBC reporter Edward Lawrence was among the victims. His harsh detention was caught on surveillance camera: several police officers aggressively twist the journalist, ignoring the demands of the protesters to let him go. The Chinese Foreign Ministry acknowledged the detention, while stating that Lawrence did not identify himself as a press officer and thereby misled the police. Later, the Foreign Ministry clarified that the police acted in the interests of Lawrence himself - they wanted to "protect him from contracting covid in a crowd of protesters."
The authorities of some cities and provinces, in an attempt to curb the protest, met the demands of the protesters and relaxed quarantine restrictions - for example, allowing the use of public transport without a negative test for covid. Markets have reopened in Guangzhou and Hong Kong and nearly all restrictions on movement within the city have been eased.
At the same time, the government's Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced a new mass vaccination plan, primarily aimed at older generations. Thus, the government aims to vaccinate 90% of residents over 80 with at least one dose by January 2023 - now 77% of this age group has been vaccinated. Officials also announced a goal of giving boosters to 90% of the population, an ambitious plan considering only 58% have received them so far. Such low rates are due, among other things, to the fact that vaccination for the government remained a secondary measure compared to Zero-COVD restrictions.
The Chinese government immediately started talking about ending or significantly easing the Zero-COVID policy. Due to dissatisfaction with the insufficient response of the authorities, detentions, and due to the accumulated inertia of political demands, it was not possible to completely extinguish the protests, and they continued to flare up in different regions. Students remained the most active: on December 4, students from Wuhar University took part in mass protests, and on December 6, students from Nanjing University, students from Anhui Medical University continued their protest.
The danger of lifting restrictive measures
On December 7, it became known about new nationwide easing in the Zero-COVID policy. Now citizens with mild or asymptomatic covid can self-isolate at home instead of special quarantine centers. The requirement to present a negative test result for movement between provinces is finally abolished. The restriction on the sale of cold medicines is also being lifted, which previously required a registration name and address, which were used to track potential infections. Lockdowns will be limited to 5 consecutive days - a significant reduction from, for example, the 100-day lockdown in Urumqi - and should be more targeted. Starting December 13, Chinese authorities will stop using the long-distance passenger tracking app, which was launched in 2020.
At the same time, the PRC government has repeatedly emphasized the danger of new variants of the virus and their high level of contagiousness. Despite all the easing, the authorities are still not ready for a complete abandonment of the Zero-COVID policy and the risk of a return of restrictions still exists.
The reactions of residents and experts to the news about the lifting of restrictions vary. On the one hand, the Chinese are happy with the success of the protests and the easing of measures, on the other hand, they call the authorities to account for the people who have suffered and died due to covid restrictions:
“This is a clear victory for the protesters. But we still don't know the names of the 27 who died in the bus accident, or the 10 who died in the Urumqi fire, or all of the many who died because they couldn't get treatment or committed suicide (due to quarantine)."
The Chinese bureaucracy has not had time to adapt to the sharp changes in anti-coronavirus measures. So, according to a resident of Beijing, huge queues line up for vaccination:
“Due to the abolition of the requirement to present tests in many places, the number of testing points has been drastically reduced. However, in order to go to the supermarket, you still need a 48-hour test. Now you have to stand in even longer lines. I stood in the cold for more than two hours, but the result did not come to me. I still haven't been able to go grocery shopping."
Experts fear that an unplanned departure from the Zero-COVID policy, combined with low vaccination rates, will lead to a sharp increase in infections, because the Chinese health system is not ready for this. This makes a sharp increase in deaths from covid almost inevitable. Yale health expert Xi Chen warns :
"The abrupt reopening of the country will drain resources, overwhelm the medical system and cause even more deaths."
Xi Chen's opinion is shared by his other colleagues. For example, Huang Yanzhong, global health specialist at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, believes that China is not ready for a complete lifting of measures:
“Is China ready to lift restrictions? If you look at the reserve potential of the healthcare system and the stocks of effective antiviral drugs, then, of course, no. If we talk about triage (medical sorting) - which, by the way, is not very strictly observed - and about vaccination of age groups of the population, especially those over 80, then we can also say that it is not.
According to a model developed by a group of scientists from Shanghai and published in Nature in May this year, if China abruptly moves away from the Zero-COVID policy without taking additional measures, the epidemic of Omicron and other variants of covid will inevitably overload the Chinese medical system and again lead to to a shortage of ventilators. The demand for them, according to the authors of the study, will exceed the available volumes by 15 times:
“We believe that allowing Omicron to circulate freely in mainland China would result in an additional 1.10 deaths per 1,000 population within 6 months. That's almost double the death rate in the US at the peak of the Omicron wave."
The beginning of a new wave of infections may already be beginning to manifest itself: for example, over the past week in large cities, the number of visits to covid clinics has increased 16 times. The harsh Zero-COVID policy has created a danger to the population - social, economic and directly related to health. At the same time, an overemphasis on compliance with these measures has led to dependence on them and a lack of vaccination. Thus, the lifting of restrictions will almost inevitably lead to another crisis.