China is softening its tone on the severity of COVID-19 and easing some coronavirus restrictions after anger over the world’s toughest pandemic containments sparked protests in several cities across the country, some leading to clashes with police .
As daily cases remain near record levels even after prolonged lockdowns, Chinese Vice Premier Sun Chunlan, who oversees the country’s response to the coronavirus, said the virus’s ability to cause disease is weakening.
“The country is facing a new situation and new tasks in disease prevention and control as the pathogenicity of omicron virus becomes weaker, more people are vaccinated and experience in containing the virus is gained,” state-run media Sun reported.
Sun also pushed for further “tweaking” of testing, treatment and quarantine policies.
The mention of diminishing pathogenicity is in contrast to previous reports from authorities about the lethality of the virus and the need to eradicate it.
Several cities continued to ease district lockdowns and allow businesses to reopen, though they have not directly referenced the protests that gathered momentum after a fire killed 10 people in the lockdown city of Urumqi, Xinjiang, on Friday.
In the southern city of Guangzhou, officials in at least seven counties issued statements saying they would lift temporary lockdowns a day after protesters in the southern city clashed with the police about the ongoing restrictions in the everyday life of the residents. One district said it would allow in-person classes to resume in schools and would reopen restaurants and other businesses, including movie theaters.
China’s lockdowns are stricter than any imposed in Western countries – typically locking people in their homes for longer periods and requiring them to undergo regular mass testing.
Al Jazeera’s Patrick Fok, reporting from Hong Kong, said protests in Guangzhou, which has been hit hard by the recent wave of infections, have taken a violent turn.
“The riots mark the escalation of a movement that has spread to several major cities,” Fok said.
“The latest developments come despite strict warnings against taking part in demonstrations,” he said, adding that China’s top security agency called for a crackdown on alleged “enemy forces”.
However, it is unclear who or what the government is referring to, Fok said, and it has yet to provide evidence of external interference.
Some protesters and foreign security experts said on Wednesday Death of former President Jiang Zeminwho led the country for a decade of rapid economic growth after the 1989 crackdown on Tiananmen Square, could become a new rallying point for protests in downtown Wuhan three years after the first cases of the virus were identified.
Jiang’s legacy has been discussed in protesters’ Telegram groups, with some saying it gives them a legitimate reason to gather.
“Sign of Weakness”
The China Dissent Monitor, run by the US government-funded Freedom House, estimates that at least 27 demonstrations took place across China from Saturday to Monday. Australia’s ASPI think tank estimated 43 protests in 22 cities.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Wednesday that people in every country should be able to “voice their frustration” through peaceful protests.
“In any country where we see that and then see the government take massive repressive measures to stop it, that’s not a sign of strength, that’s a sign of weakness,” Blinken said.
The Global Times, a state tabloid, reported this week that several cities are “tuning” their response “to take more targeted, science-based measures to contain flare-ups” and offer advice on the best response to COVID-19. 19 announced earlier this month.
Curbs have also been eased in southwest Chongqing, where close contacts are allowed to isolate at home, while in central Zhengzhou, site of a large Foxconn factory that makes Apple iPhones and the scene of recent COVID-19 riots, the “Order Power” announced “resumption of business, including supermarkets, gyms and restaurants.
Earlier, national health officials said China will respond to “urgent concerns” raised by the public and that COVID rules should be implemented more flexibly.
The Global Times, a state tabloid, said several cities are now “tuning” their response “to take more targeted, science-based measures to contain flare-ups,” echoing advice on COVID-19 responses released earlier this month were announced.
COVID has spread even as China largely isolates itself from the world, claiming victims in the hundreds of millions to meet relentless testing and isolation.
While the country’s death toll remains low by global standards, analysts said reopening ahead of rising vaccination rates could lead to widespread illness and deaths.
The government announced this on Tuesday Intensification of vaccination for the over 80sthe most vulnerable group for COVID-19.
Xia Gang, an official in charge of vaccination services with the National Health Commission, said the period between basic vaccination and booster vaccinations will be shortened to three months for the elderly.