Over the past three years, China’s top leader, Xi Jinping, staked his legitimacy on “zero Covid,” making it an ideological campaign aimed at demonstrating the superiority of centralized control over democratic rule. He declared a “people’s war” against the coronavirus that used lockdowns and quarantines to eliminate infections.
In a remarkable pivot, the Chinese government announced a broad easing of those rules on Wednesday, an implicit concession to public discontent after mass street protests in late November posed the most widespread challenge to the ruling Communist Party in decades.
The party appears to be attempting a tactical, face-saving retreat that would allow Mr. Xi to change tack without acknowledging that widespread opposition and economic pain forced his hand. China’s state media depicted Wednesday’s move as a planned transition after Mr. Xi’s zero-tolerance approach secured a victory over a virus that has now weakened.
The move could very well assuage protesters. But the party is expected to confront a surge of infections as lockdowns lift, schools reopen and people try to resume normal life. The government must now place much greater urgency on vaccinations, which had been neglected in recent months, experts say.
The new policy takes aim at some of the most onerous and widely feared pandemic measures that reflect how intrusive the policy had become. Beijing largely did away on Wednesday with rules requiring mass testing, limited the scope of lockdowns and scrapped mandatory hospitalization and mass quarantines. It also ordered pharmacies not to ban or control the sale of cold and flu medication — a policy enforced in some places to prevent residents from using over-the-counter drugs to reduce fevers and avoid detection.
The changes, while not a complete dismantling of “zero Covid,” loosen measures that have dragged down the economy by disrupting daily life for hundreds of millions of people, forcing many small businesses to shutter and driving youth unemployment to a record high. The changes also attempt to alleviate public anger against the system of digital surveillance used to track and limit the movements of practically all people.
Under “zero Covid,” dozens of officials have been punished or fired after outbreaks. Cities have imposed lockdowns that confined hundreds of millions of people in their homes for weeks or even months at a time. Citizens and health experts who questioned the extent of controls or problems with lockdowns were punished or silenced.
The controls have become harder to justify as rapidly spreading Omicron variants continued to slip through, and especially as the rest of the world has increasingly adjusted to living with the virus.
Understand the Protests in China
“By now, Xi Jinping should also understand that this virus can’t be controlled, and if it can’t be controlled, then opening up must happen sooner or later,” said Deng Yuwen, a former editor at a Communist Party newspaper, the Study Times, who now lives in the United States and writes commentaries about Chinese politics. “But most fundamental of all, the economy can’t hold up any longer. If they try tightening up again, the ordinary people would really raise hell.”
For many in China, the relief was immediate. People flocked to Chinese social media and video sites to post thumbs-up emojis and comments like: “I’m crying, I’ve waited for three years.”
One migrant worker who had protested against a lockdown last month at an iPhone manufacturing complex in central China said he was elated by the news. “Our voices are finally heard,” said the worker, who gave only his last name, Zhang, out of fear of retaliation by the authorities. “We workers no longer have to be locked up, starved and suppressed.”
Far from indicating defeat in the face of broad opposition, China’s state media has depicted Wednesday’s turn in policy as the latest in an unbroken succession of wise choices that have resulted in a hard-earned victory for China. “In the past three years, the virus has weakened, and we have become stronger,” the official Xinhua news agency wrote in a commentary Wednesday titled “Winning the Strategic Initiative Through Persistence.”
For days, the propaganda apparatus has been pushing the idea — long understood elsewhere — that Omicron variants are less lethal than the coronavirus’s earlier iterations. Officials and state media reports have quietly dropped the use of “dynamic zero Covid,” Beijing’s term for the strategy of lockdowns and quarantines to clear infections.
The media blitz showed how the party can shift gears by using its propaganda to obfuscate what were policy mistakes, said Willy Lam, a longtime analyst of Chinese politics in Hong Kong who is a senior fellow at the Jamestown Foundation.
Mr. Xi “may still insist that he was right with ‘zero Covid’ but by force of circumstances he has no choice,” said Mr. Lam, referring to the recent protests and the reeling economy.
“They’re now trying to cover up the mistakes they had made by finally telling the truth to the public that the Omicron variant is not life-threatening,” he added.
The protests showed how drastically “zero Covid” had undermined the party’s public support. For many, the expansive and often seemingly arbitrary pandemic measures became the clearest example of the excesses of Mr. Xi’s authoritarian tendencies, and opposition to the approach unexpectedly resonated with people across the country.
More important, the economic slowdown caused by “zero Covid” undermined a key tenet of the party’s rule, that in exchange for democratic freedoms, the people would enjoy steady economic growth and the chance at a better life. The heavy reliance on mass testing and quarantines also placed an immense financial burden on local governments.
“Economically speaking, they can’t sustain this,” Mr. Deng said. “Even if local governments want to lock down like before, they just don’t have the money. Then on top of that, there’s been the student and public protests, so it’s like the donkey has finished working the grindstone and can be slaughtered — it’s time to open up.”
The central government’s announcement came after a series of moves over the last several days by local governments, particularly in major cities, to ease regulations. Shanghai said that it would no longer require residents to show a negative P.C.R. test to ride the subway or buses or to enter outdoor parks. Beijing dropped a similar requirement this week for access to the city’s main airport, as well as supermarkets, shopping centers and other public places.
Wednesday’s changes will free residents in many parts of the country from what had become a near-daily chore of getting tested just to travel across the country, move around their cities or use public services. The new policy did not immediately change the rules for international arrivals, who are subject to at least five days in government-designated quarantine.
People who have mild or asymptomatic Covid will be allowed to isolate at home and no longer be sent to hospitals, as had been the case since the virus emerged. The government appeared to retain the power to impose lockdowns, but narrowed the scope of such measures to buildings, floors or units rather than neighborhoods, districts or cities — and said that such confinements should be lifted quickly.
At the same time, the policy shift will bring new challenges for the party. Experts have warned that China needs to step up sharply its pace of vaccinations, particularly for older adults, before taking big strides to reopen the country. People over 80, who are among the most vulnerable to serious illness or death during a Covid infection, have the lowest rate of vaccination: only two-thirds have received the initial course of vaccination, usually two shots, and only two-fifths have had the initial course of vaccines plus a booster.
“The timing is clearly because of the economic and social difficulties faced during ‘zero Covid,’ but it’s happening as we head into the cold winter months,” said Siddharth Sridhar, a virologist at the University of Hong Kong. Even if China moves at lightning speed to boost its vulnerable populations, it will need a few months to vaccinate the numbers needed for reopening.
“If they are considering a pivot, they need to bolster their defenses because a storm is coming,” Dr. Sridhar said.
The easing of the rules appeared to unleash pent-up demand for travel after months of being told to forgo sightseeing and family reunions and stay in place. Ctrip, a Chinese travel booking site, said that searches for air tickets had more than doubled on the platform. Demand was especially strong for travel before next month’s Lunar New Year holiday.
At the same time, many older people in China have been concerned that opening up too quickly might expose them to dangerous infections, a sign of the public relations challenge lying ahead for Beijing.
Du Weilin, a 72-year-old Shanghai resident sitting on a roadside bench on Wednesday, said he was worried about what the new policy might mean for him. “The virus needs to be strictly controlled, and now is not the time to open up,” he said, adding that the only time to do so would be if there were zero cases.
Mr. Du said that he had not been vaccinated because he did not believe the available vaccines to be effective. “Only your own immune system works,” he said. “Everything should be taken one step at a time.”
Chris Buckley, Claire Fu and Alexandra Stevenson contributed reporting and Li You contributed research.