China officials soften tone on Covid curbs amid protests

Chinese health officials softened their messages about the risks of Covid-19 and urged local governments to avoid unnecessary and lengthy lockdowns after protesters across the country denounced the strict controls.

The Omicron variant has caused fewer deaths and less serious illness than previous Covid variants, a health official said at a news conference on Tuesday.

“International and national surveillance data confirmed that the pathogenicity and virulence of the Omicron mutant strains … are significantly weaker than the original strains and variant strains like Delta,” Chang Zhaorui, a researcher at the China Center for Disease Control and Prevention, told reporters.

In a rare show of defiance, crowds rallied in China for the third night as protests against Covid restrictions spread to Beijing, Shanghai and other cities. People held blank sheets symbolizing censorship and called for the Chinese president’s resignation. Photo: Kyodo News/Zuma Press

Last week, health authorities emphasized the high risk of infection from Omicron.

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It’s unclear whether the watered-down messages will lead to concrete action by local officials, who are bound by Beijing’s dual mandate of imposing Covid controls and securing people’s livelihoods, researchers say.

Protests have erupted in major cities across China against President Xi Jinping’s zero-tolerance approach to Covid-19, an unusual display of defiance in the country as the economic and social costs of sudden lockdowns and other restrictions escalate. They began on Friday in Urumqi, capital of the remote Xinjiang region, where some residents blamed several months of lockdowns for contributing to 10 deaths in a fire there.

Chinese authorities on Tuesday tightened controls over protesters and dispatched police to prevent new gatherings as state media reiterated their support for Mr Xi’s tough pandemic strategy.

At the same time, Chinese health officials responded to public anger by refocusing their message about the dangers of the virus.

When asked about Tuesday’s protests, Mi Feng, a spokesman for China’s National Health Commission, said authorities have adjusted Covid control measures to protect the population and economy as the disease evolves.

Chinese state media echoed the change in tone. On Tuesday, the Beijing News, a Communist Party-run newspaper, published interviews with several recovered Covid patients who said their symptoms were mild and had no long-term effects. Previous media coverage had highlighted the dangers of the virus.

An article titled “People First, Not Covid Control First” published by the Zhejiang provincial government on social media platform WeChat on Tuesday said the Covid restrictions are aimed at preventing the spread of virus, not controlling people.

Weifeng Zhong, a senior research fellow at George Mason University’s Mercatus Center in Fairfax, Virginia, said China’s new messaging efforts appear more siled and local than a centralized propaganda campaign. “They sound like they are still sticking to the policy but are promising to be more cautious,” Mr Zhong said after watching Tuesday’s briefing.

Some investors are betting that China will soon ease its Covid-19 strategy, while others are taking a more cautious stance.

Expectations for a phased reopening in and outside of China rose earlier this month as health officials enacted a raft of measures to relax some Covid control rules.

This policy fine-tuning likely played a role in the current demonstrations because it raised expectations of normalcy before officials doubled down on control measures as Covid case numbers rose, said Neysun Mahboubi, a Chinese law and political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania.

“It was kind of a perfect storm. These earlier relaxations, watching the World Cup, seeing people in the stands without masks, and then we also have the fire [in Xinjiang]’ said Mr Mahboubi. “It was a flammable mixture.”

In recent days, virus cases in China have surpassed the previous peak seen in April during the Shanghai lockdown. The country recorded more than 37,000 new Covid cases on Monday, health officials said on Tuesday.

If officials manage to increase vaccination rates in the coming months, it would indicate they are finally taking concrete steps to end the zero-Covid policy, Mr Mahboubi said.

Some Chinese, particularly the elderly, felt that vaccination was less urgent as China had managed to limit infections. Just over 90% of Chinese were fully vaccinated as of Monday, according to official figures, but only 66% are fully vaccinated among those over 80.

Write to Liyan Qi at [email protected]

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