Protests compel China to soften its Covid policy : The Tribune India

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Protests compel China to soften its Covid policy

The protests by Chinese people against the zero-Covid policy show that even a docile population under the most repressive control would rise against the government’s unscientific and irrational policies when these hurt their lives. In today’s interconnected world, people can’t be suppressed by information firewalls, surveillance tools, prison terms and other measures. Also, the Xi regime has remained indifferent to the miseries of its people.

Protests compel China to soften its Covid policy

PUBLIC IMPATIENCE: Some citizens of China protested against heavy censorship and the zero-Covid policy by holding blank sheets of paper. Reuters



Yogesh Gupta

Former Ambassador

BARELY a week after returning to Beijing following his high-profile diplomacy at the G20 and APEC summits, Chinese President Xi Jinping was rattled by widespread protests at home against his zero-Covid-19 policy. While Xi tried to underplay these as the handiwork of “mainly students who were frustrated after three years of the pandemic”, the reality was that the protests erupted simultaneously in several major cities such as Shanghai, Beijing, Xian, Nanjing, Chengdu, Wuhan, Urumqi, Guangdong and Zhengzhou with the participation of students, migrants, workers and other citizens around a single cause.

The protests spread after 10 people were killed in a fire mishap in Urumqi city of western China, with the protesters believing that the zero-Covid measures had prevented the victims from escaping from their blocked apartments and the firefighters from saving lives — allegations which the Xi regime has denied. The protesters in the other cities feared that the traumatic incident at Urumqi could occur again as the authorities were putting the zero-Covid policy ahead of human lives.

The protesters shared the prevalent opinion that the zero-Covid policy had become unscientific and irrelevant and was being foisted upon the country due to Xi’s ideological obsession. Watching the World Cup soccer matches on television, people in China were wondering why they were being kept in quarantine when people in other countries were mingling freely.

The protests were as much against Xi’s faulty governance as the zero-Covid policy. As per media reports, several hundred students gathered at Xi’s alma mater, Tsinghua University, on November 27, seeking “democracy, the rule of law and freedom of expression.” Peking University students, demonstrating on November 26, had painted slogans on building walls, saying, “We want freedom, not lockdowns, dynamic zero-Covid policy is a lie.” Similarly, the protesters at Guangdong, Zhengzhou and Lhasa were asking for an end to prolonged lockdowns and frequent Covid tests. Some protesters were holding blank sheets of paper to complain against heavy censorship and were asking for constitutional reform and regime change.

The signs of public impatience with the zero-Covid policy had been building up for months. In May and June, protests had erupted in Beijing against the Covid restrictions. At the same time, 20 university professors across China had criticised the “Covid excesses” of the Shanghai government where the residents of a multi-storeyed building were sent into central quarantine due to just one positive case. Even the Director General of WHO, Tedros Ghebreyesus, had warned on May 10 that China’s zero-tolerance Covid policy was unsustainable, considering the new facts about the behaviour of the Covid virus.

The Xi regime was, however, adamant about its zero-Covid policy, arguing that its withdrawal would lead to millions of infections and a large number of deaths as the virus had not been allowed to spread earlier due to control measures; a large number of elderly population (who had low faith in China’s domestic vaccines) had not been vaccinated (vaccination rate among people over 80 years was barely 40 per cent by November); and the country’s health infrastructure would not be able to cope with the mass infections.

While the rest of the world prepared to cope with Covid by expanding healthcare facilities, giving triple vaccination to its people and localised quarantine measures, China spent the three years in perfecting virus control measures (building quarantine facilities, codes for the detection of infected people and manufacturing supplies for Covid tests) instead of preparing to live with the virus. Not to give the impression that China trails the West in science and technology, the Xi regime did not allow the more efficacious foreign m-RNA vaccines to be used in China; in fact, it linked the entry of foreigners into China to those vaccinated with the Chinese vaccines.

Xi’s zero-Covid policy has damaged China’s economy, forcing millions into quarantine camps and, thus, unable to work, a large number of industries getting closed, hurting the government finances and a spike in the number of unemployed youth. Unfazed by these hardships, the Xi regime continued its zero-Covid policy, only fine-tuning certain aspects till the protests hit it hard.

The demonstrations have compelled the Xi regime to relax its zero-Covid policy. Vice-Premier Sun Chunlan, who is in charge of policy formulation, now says, “China has entered a new phase, faces new tasks in the fight against Covid-19 as the Omicron virus has become less pathogenic.” Some provincial and local governments are now asking people to take rapid antigen tests, to quarantine at home, use public transport and enter public buildings without a negative test result. The government is trying to step up the vaccination of the elderly people and expand health infrastructure. The expectation is that the zero-Covid policy will be relaxed in a gradual manner without the regime admitting its mistake. The ministers in charge of intelligence and public security are taking strong measures to “crack down on hostile forces.”

The protests show that even a docile population under the most repressive control would rise against the government’s unscientific and irrational policies when these hurt their lives. In today’s interconnected world, people can’t be suppressed by information firewalls, surveillance tools, prison terms and other draconian measures. The Xi regime has been indifferent to the miseries of its people for long and has been formulating policies cut off from the ground realities.

The reputation and standing of President Xi Jinping at home and abroad have been sullied, with many questioning his leadership openly. In future, Xi will have to carefully weigh how his policies would affect the lives of people and how they would react. It is to be seen if Xi would now behave as an enlightened ruler and devise his policies taking people’s concerns into account or continue with his old authoritarian ways.


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