China uses police, censors, Covid easing to stem protests

Police seen keeping watch during a protest against China's strict zero Covid measures in Beijing on Nov 28., 2022.

Police seen keeping watch during a protest against China's strict zero Covid measures in Beijing on Nov 28., 2022.

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BEIJING (Nov 29): Chinese health authorities struck a conciliatory tone a day after protests against stringent Covid curbs were stymied by a heavy police presence, social media censorship and quiet pandemic concessions. 

Personal requests and questions about how the virus is being handled should be resolved in a timely manner, officials from the National Health Commission said on Tuesday, after some measures implemented at the local level triggered confusion and angst. Excessive curbs should be avoided, they said, even as the virus continues to spread.  

The unrest that flared up over the weekend stems from random lockdowns, ignoring residents’ requests and excessive implementation of Covid controls, rather than the controls themselves, said Cheng Youquan, an official with the nation’s top health agency. China must reduce the inconvenience caused by the outbreak, authorities said during a briefing that focused on the complaints and the need to boost vaccination rates, especially among the elderly.

The softer tone followed unrest over the weekend that was triggered by a deadly fire in the city of Urumqi last week. The protests sputtered Monday night, after Beijing deployed a heavy police presence to clamp down on gatherings. Cities including Shanghai, Hangzhou, Nanjing and elsewhere also saw fewer demonstrations, while censorship of protest-related discussions ramped up across the social media platforms that had been used to vent public anger.

Some concessions have quietly emerged. People who stay home don’t need frequent Covid tests, the state news agency said on Tuesday, a retrenchment from the previous reliance on mass testing to track the virus. The elderly and students taking online classes were exempted from daily tests in Guangzhou. Movement restrictions imposed in Beijing to trace the source of Covid or identify those infected generally must not exceed 24 hours, officials said.

The Hang Seng China Enterprises Index erased Monday’s drop, led by property developers, after the government eased some financing restrictions for the industry. Stocks associated with economic reopening also climbed, as some investors speculated the protests may hasten a shift away from Covid Zero policies.

China’s total case count remains elevated, with the National Health Commission reporting 37,477 infections for Monday. There were 8,721 cases found in the country’s most populous city, Chongqing, while the tally in the capital city Beijing hit a record 4,370 new local infections. 

The US embassy urged Americans in China to keep two weeks’ worth of medications, water and food on hand due to expanded Covid prevention and control measures, according to a statement late on Monday.

While the concessions to strict Covid Zero policies are minor, changes over the past few days have given hope to market watchers. 

Chengdu halted construction of a quarantine facility that aimed to accommodate tens of thousands of people, according to local media reports, raising speculation about a potential retreat from mass quarantine policies. Many housing compounds in Beijing lifted lockdowns after residents confronted local staff about excessive restrictions.