China to ease COVID restrictions after week of historic protests

  • China eases mass testing to allow home quarantine – sources
  • The top official says the intensity of the virus is weakening
  • The shift comes after a series of protests
  • The biggest show of public protest in years

HONG KONG/BEIJING, Dec 1 (Reuters) – China is set to announce in the coming days that it will relax its COVID-19 quarantine protocols and scale back mass testing, sources told Reuters, a significant shift in policy after global outrage. The draconian bans sparked widespread protests.

Cases nationwide are at their highest, but changes have come in recent days as some cities lift lockdowns and the virus’s ability to cause disease is weakening, a top official said.

China’s biggest show of civil disobedience in years — from candlelight vigils in Beijing to street clashes with police in Guangzhou — did not mention protests by health officials announcing the easing in their regions.

The measures to be unveiled include mass testing and scaling back the use of routine nucleic acid tests and moves to allow positive cases and close contacts to self-isolate under certain conditions, sources familiar with the matter said.

This is a far cry from earlier protocols, which led to public frustration as entire communities were locked down for weeks, even after a single positive case.

Frustration boiled over last week in an unprecedented wave of popular protests across mainland China since President Xi Jinping came to power in 2012. The unrest comes as the economy enters a new era of slower growth than seen in decades.

On Thursday night, Shanghai train passengers claimed to have received an unsolicited document wirelessly sent to their phones, saying life in China would only be better if the lockdown was lifted entirely and Xi would step down — a new tactic amid a heavy police presence in some places. Cities before the weekend.

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Changing the rules

Less than 24 hours after violent demonstrations in Guangzhou on Tuesday, authorities in at least seven districts of the vast manufacturing hub said they were lifting temporary lockdowns. One district said it would allow businesses to reopen, including schools, restaurants and movie theaters.

Cities including Chongqing and Zhengzhou also announced relaxations.

Vice Premier Sun Chunlan, who oversees Covid efforts, said on Thursday that the official push toward a key change built on the weakening of the omicron variant’s ability to cause the disease at a meeting of leading experts, allowing China to improve prevention efforts.

“After nearly three years of fighting the epidemic, our country’s medical and health system has withstood the test,” he said in comments published by the official Xinhua news agency.

“The vaccination rate of the overall population is more than 90% and public health awareness and quality has improved significantly,” he said.

A day earlier, state media reported Sun as saying that China was facing a “new situation” in its response to COVID and was urging more “optimal” testing, treatment and isolation policies.

The reference to weakening Covid pathogenicity contradicts earlier messages by The Hawk Sun about the virulence of the virus in general.

“Sun’s (previous) speech marked a significant relaxation of COVID control measures in Guangzhou yesterday, sending another strong signal that the zero-COVID policy will end within the next few months,” analysts at Nomura said in a research note.

“These two events may point to the beginning of the end of zero-COVID.”

Some communities in the capital, Beijing, have begun preparing for the changes.

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A community in the city’s east held an online poll this week, asking residents about the possibility of home quarantine for positive cases.

“I certainly welcome the decision of our residential community, regardless of the outcome of this referendum,” said Tom Simpson, executive director of residence for China at the China-Britain Business Council.

His main concern was being forced to move to an isolation facility, where “conditions will be at least as bad,” he said.

Prominent nationalist commentator Hu Zijin said in a social media post on Wednesday that many asymptomatic carriers of the coronavirus in Beijing are already in home isolation.

Will it reopen next year?

Expectations have grown around the world that China, as it tries to contain infections and achieve better vaccination rates among its reluctant elderly, could reopen its borders at some point next year.

Health experts warn of widespread illness and death if Covid breaks free before vaccination is ramped up.

Chinese stocks and markets around the world initially fell after weekend protests in Shanghai, Beijing and other cities, but later rebounded on hopes that public pressure would lead to a new approach by authorities.

Further COVID outbreaks could weigh on China’s economic activity next term, the International Monetary Fund said on Wednesday, which saw an opportunity for a safe overhaul of policies to allow economic growth to pick up in 2023.

China’s tight control measures have dampened domestic economic activity this year and spilled over into other countries through supply chain disruptions.

The Caixin/S&P Global manufacturing purchasing managers’ Index showed factory activity contracted in November for a fourth straight month, following weaker data in an official survey on Wednesday.

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While the change in tone on Covid appears to be a response to public dissatisfaction with the draconian measures, authorities are seeking to question those who took part in the protests.

China Dissent Monitor, run by the US government-funded Freedom House, estimated at least 27 protests across China from Saturday to Monday. Australia’s ASPI think tank assessed 51 protests in 24 cities.

(This story has been reprinted to correct attribution for the story)

Additional reporting by Julie Zhu in Hong Kong and Kevin Huang and Ellen Zhang in Beijing; By Marius Zaharia, John Geddy and Greg Dorod; Editing by Michael Perry, Robert Birsal and Conor Humphreys

Our Standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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