In the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou, residents returned to work on Thursday for the first time in weeks after Covid-19 lockdowns were lifted. In Chongqing, in the southwest, some residents were no longer required to take regular Covid tests. And in Beijing, a senior health official played down the severity of current Omicron variants, a rare move for the government.
The developments suggest that the ruling Communist Party may be starting to back down on unpopular Covid restrictions in response to a wave of mass protests that have been the most widespread challenge to Beijing in decades.
When protesters rallied in a dozen cities over the past weekend, fueled by anger over the country’s strict lockdowns, Beijing initially responded with security measures focused on rounding up protesters and deterring others from taking part in gatherings. Now the party is also, to some extent and in some places, signaling a willingness to address the root cause of the public anger: intrusive pandemic controls that have stifled economic growth, left millions of people confined in their homes for long stretches and set off violent clashes as recently as this week.
The party has still not publicly acknowledged the widespread demonstrations against lockdowns, but top security officials have warned that the authorities would crack down on “criminal acts that disrupt social order.” The policing measures have mostly muted the protests for now, but the need to tamp down public discontent has grown more urgent with the death of Jiang Zemin, a former president, whose passing on Wednesday could inspire more people to demonstrate against the government.
Easing China’s exceptionally stringent Covid measures could help assuage public anger. But it is unclear how far the party would be willing to go or if any such shift is being led by Xi Jinping, China’s leader, who has been the chief enforcer of the country’s “zero Covid” policy. Mr. Xi has staked the party’s legitimacy on controlling the virus better than other countries, especially its geopolitical rivals in the West, and any reversal or abandonment of the policy could undercut his authority.
Even as Sun Chunlan, the vice premier overseeing pandemic efforts, acknowledged this week that the danger that Omicron variants posed was waning, lockdowns continued to be in place in many parts of the country. At least one city in the country’s northeast, Jinzhou, said on Thursday that it planned to maintain lockdowns for several more days because “it would be a shame not to eradicate cases if they can be eradicated!”
The pushback from places like Jinzhou points to the challenge that Beijing might face in trying to unwind the heavy-handed approach that had until just this week seemed immovable. In Ms. Sun’s remarks to health officials, carried by the state media, even the phrase the party uses to describe its policy, “dynamic zero Covid,” was notably absent.
Speaking at a symposium at the National Health Commission on Thursday, Ms. Sun said for the second time in two days that the country was entering a new phase in its campaign against the virus.
“After three years fighting against Covid, our medical and disease control system has met the challenge,” Ms. Sun said. “The public’s sense of health has increased significantly.”
“China’s pandemic prevention faces a new situation and new tasks given the weakening severity of the Omicron variant,” Ms. Sun had noted on Wednesday during a meeting in which she at times did not wear a mask. She added that China must take “small but unwavering steps” to optimize its controls.
Jin Dongyan, a virologist at the University of Hong Kong, said the developments — particularly Ms. Sun’s comments — were some of the strongest indications yet that China would alter its approach after years of intractability.
“Change could be imminent. They’re moving in the right direction, but they’re not there yet,” said Mr. Jin, who added that China still had work to do dispelling misinformation about the severity of Covid and the side effects of vaccines.
Understand the Protests in China
“Many small steps could lead to a big difference,” Mr. Jin said.
After officials announced an easing of Covid restrictions in Guangzhou, a city of 19 million people, lockdowns were lifted in at least four districts. Before the start of a news conference on Wednesday, officials unhooked their masks in quick succession, a staged gesture that deviated from past Covid-19 protocols. But restrictions were still in place for neighborhoods considered “high risk,” where Covid cases have been reported.
Guangzhou has come under immense scrutiny after residents forcefully resisted being confined in their homes, restrictions that, in some cases, were to last for as long as a month. This week, hundreds of migrant workers in the district of Haizhu, a hub for garment production, tore down barriers and hurled glass bottles at riot police officers after weeks of going without work and seeing their food supplies dwindle.
Some residents went into work for the first time in a month after rules were eased. Others reveled in the simple joy of dining in a restaurant. “It’s good to be back to normal again,” said Faye Luo, 30, a sales manager at a technology start-up in Guangzhou who returned to her office on Thursday. “This time, I hope normal life can last a little longer.”
In Chongqing, officials announced measures to limit testing requirements and prevent lockdowns from being extended beyond high-risk areas. Several other cities, including Beijing and the northern city of Shijiazhuang, modified testing requirements and announced that malls and supermarkets would reopen.
On Thursday, reports of the rollback of controls in some places spread across social media feeds and chat groups on WeChat, China’s most popular messaging app, and were met with a measure of optimism.
“We were all very happy last night,” said one protester from Shanghai who asked to be identified only by her surname Zhang for fear of official reprisals. “We started to picture how life would be after the whole country’s restrictions are loosened.”
Yanzhong Huang, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations, cautioned that without proper planning, any sudden shift away from “zero Covid” could create a crisis of mass infections, overwhelming hospitals, if local officials and ordinary residents interpreted Ms. Sun’s comments to mean that they can too quickly lower their guard.
“In the absence of a road map for an orderly transition, her remarks might trigger unintended responses at the local level that make a rapid, nationwide surge of cases more likely,” said Mr. Huang, who has called for China to adopt a more flexible Covid policy.
Lifting China’s stringent Covid measures was always going to be difficult for both public health and political reasons. China’s population of older adults is not sufficiently vaccinated to withstand a major outbreak, and the country’s health infrastructure is still largely underdeveloped, particularly in smaller towns and rural areas.
Last month, the authorities announced rules to limit the scope of lockdowns and relax quarantines for close contacts of infected people. But met with a wave of subsequent outbreaks, many local governments returned to strict lockdowns, contributing to the protesters’ frustrations.
Perhaps more important, Mr. Xi has touted his “zero Covid” policy as an example of China’s global superiority while other countries, especially Western developed nations, experienced hundreds of thousands of deaths from the virus. Abandoning the policy outright would undermine Mr. Xi’s image of infallibility as China’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong.
Yet the protests, which seemed unthinkable just days ago in a country where dissent is smothered by censorship and surveillance, have highlighted the risks of maintaining the policy indefinitely. Dissatisfaction over Covid measures can quickly spiral into deeper grievances about how extensively the party under Mr. Xi has inserted itself into daily life and asserted its control over society.
Given the shrinking space for expression in China, the authorities will also watch carefully to make sure protesters don’t seize on Mr. Jiang’s death to recapture momentum. In 1989, the death of Hu Yaobang, a liberal-leaning Chinese leader, gave rise to student-led pro-democracy demonstrations in Tiananmen Square.
So far, Mr. Jiang’s passing has not inspired such calls. “The young these days have mixed feelings about Jiang, especially those who are aware enough to act on their ideas,” said one protester, who asked to be identified only by the surname Ye. People latched on to Mr. Jiang, the protester said, mainly as a foil to criticize Mr. Xi.
In protester group chats and on Chinese social media on Wednesday, some recalled Mr. Jiang as the embodiment of an open, outward-facing China. Others pointed to his ruthlessness against those who challenged the Communist Party’s authority, such as his crackdown on the Falun Gong spiritual movement.
For China’s officials and state media, the death of the former leader presented an opportunity to repair the image of the Communist Party, as well as that of Mr. Jiang’s chosen successor, Mr. Xi. Obituaries showered the former leader with effusive praise, and major Chinese websites switched into black and white, a common commemorative practice following the death of important figures.
The party will want to “turn Jiang’s passing away and massive mourning of him and his contribution to the country as a way to consolidate people’s faith” in the party, wrote Zhu Jiangnan, an associate professor of Chinese politics at Hong Kong University, in a response to questions.
Olivia Wang and Amy Chang Chien contributed reporting.