One of China’s most senior pandemic response officials has said the country is entering a “new stage and mission” in the latest indication of the government’s changing approach after mass protests against its zero-Covid policy.
Sun Chunlan, China’s vice-premier, made the comments to national health officials on Wednesday, according to state media outlet Xinhua. It came as several regions including Shanghai began to lift lockdowns despite continuing high case numbers.
“With the decreasing pathogenicity of the Omicron variant, the increasing vaccination rate and the accumulating experience of outbreak control and prevention, China’s pandemic containment faces a new stage and mission,” Sun reportedly said.
Sun was hearing from a roundtable of health experts, who Xinhua said praised China’s efforts before offering suggestions on “improving” current measures. She said China was also taking a more “humane approach” with its outbreak responses. Sun, like the health officials who addressed the country on Tuesday, did not refer to the “dynamic zero Covid” policy by name, instead emphasising vaccination and other measures.
It has only been in recent days that Chinese officials have begun to emphasise the lower severity of the Omicron strain of Covid-19. State media has also begun to publish reassurances that the public ought not to panic over the variant. The shift in tone comes alongside a new vaccination drive aimed at elderly people, announced on Tuesday. More than 90% of China’s population has received at least two doses of a vaccine, but the rate drops sharply among elderly demographics, especially those over 80.
China reported 36,061 cases on Wednesday, a slight drop on Tuesday’s 37,828. Despite the relatively high numbers, some areas have begun to ease restrictions.
On Thursday, 24 districts in Shanghai designated as “high risk” were released from lockdown measures, state media said. It followed the easing of lockdowns across 11 districts in Guangzhou on Wednesday, despite both cities reporting rising case numbers. The lifting of lockdowns suggested an easing of the stringent measures that protesters had rallied against. However while it may be a sign that grievances have been heard, authorities are showing no tolerance for protests, and are continuing to track down and in some cases detain people who took to the streets.
Zhengzhou, where employees at an Apple-supplier factory staged extraordinary walkouts to escape Covid restriction in recent weeks, has also eased restrictions. State media also reported Chongqing will begin to lift lockdowns in the city.
Hu Xijin, the former editor of nationalistic state media tabloid, the Global Times, and who remains a public commenter, noted the sudden changes. “China is speeding up to cast aside large-scale lockdowns,” Hu said on Thursday on Twitter.
Analysts have said the changes are a clear sign the government is listening to protesters, even if it is not publicly acknowledging them and instead has sent authorities in pursuit of those who attended protests.
The past week saw several days of protests at a scale not seen in China for decades, as mounting frustrations with the zero-Covid policy coalesced into anger and grief after the deaths of 10 people in a building fire in Urumqi, Xinjiang.
China remains the last major country still committed to an elimination strategy in response to Covid-19. The policy was successful in the early part of the pandemic, keeping the virus largely at bay and the death toll minimal compared to other countries. However the emergency of more transmissible variants has challenged and at times overwhelmed the system, resulting in frequent and sudden lockdowns, travel restrictions, and associated deprivations including food shortages, secondary deaths, and economic damage.
Some rallies also saw shouted demands for democracy and rule of law, and – in Shanghai – for leader Xi Jinping to step down. Observers say it is likely that those who protested against Xi and the government will face harsh punishment as authorities seek to remind citizens of their zero tolerance for dissent.
The protests have also coincided with the death of former Chinese leader, Jiang Zemin. The 96-year-old, who was elevated to the head of the Communist party during the Tiananmen protests and then presided over years of economic expansion, died on Wednesday, state media said. The timing has put observers on alert – there is a tradition in China of people using public mourning events for past leaders to express discontent with the current regime.