One of China’s top pandemic response officials said the country is entering a “new phase and mission” in the latest reference to the government’s changed approach following 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-run media outlet Xinhua. It came as several regions, including Shanghai, began lifting lockdowns despite persistently high case numbers.
“With the decreasing pathogenicity of Omicron variant, rising vaccination rate, and accumulated experience in outbreak control and prevention, China’s pandemic containment is entering a new phase and mission,” Sun reportedly said.
Sun heard from a roundtable of health experts who, according to Xinhua, praised China’s efforts before offering suggestions to “improve” the current measures. She said China is also taking a “more humane approach” in its response to the outbreak. Sun, like health officials addressing the country on Tuesday, did not refer to the “Dynamic Zero Covid” policy by name, instead emphasizing vaccinations and other measures.
Only in the last few days have Chinese officials begun to emphasize the lesser severity of the Omicron strain of Covid-19. State media have also begun issuing assurances that the public should not panic over the variant. The change in tone comes with a new vaccination campaign aimed at the elderly, announced on Tuesday. More than 90% of China’s population has received at least two doses of a vaccine, but the rate drops sharply in older populations, particularly those over 80.
China reported 36,061 cases on Wednesday, down slightly from Tuesday’s 37,828. Despite the relatively high numbers, some areas have started to ease restrictions.
On Thursday, 24 districts in Shanghai classified as “high risk” were released from the lockdown measures, state media said. It followed the easing of lockdowns in 11 counties in Guangzhou on Wednesday, although both cities reported rising case numbers. The lifting of the lockdowns indicated an easing of the strict measures protesters had rallied against. Although this may be a sign that complaints have been heard, authorities show no tolerance for protests and continue to pursue and, in some cases, arrest people who have taken to the streets.
Zhengzhou, where workers at an Apple supply factory have been staging extraordinary work stoppages in recent weeks to escape the Covid confinement, has also eased restrictions. State media also reported that Chongqing will start lifting lockdowns in the city.
Hu Xijin, a former editor of the nationalist state-media tabloid Global Times who remains a public commentator, noted the sudden changes. “China is accelerating to lift large-scale lockdowns,” Hu said on Twitter on Thursday.
Analysts have said the changes are a clear sign the government is listening to protesters, even if it doesn’t publicly acknowledge them and has instead dispatched authorities to go after those who took part in the protests.
The past week has seen several days of protests on a scale not seen in China for decades amid growing frustration over the zero-Covid policy following the death of 10 people in a building fire in Urumqi, Xinjiang , turned into anger and sadness.
China remains the last major country to still commit to an elimination strategy in response to Covid-19. Policies were successful early in the pandemic, largely keeping the virus in check and the death toll minimal compared to other countries. However, the emergency of transmissible variants has challenged and at times overwhelmed the system, resulting in frequent and sudden lockdowns, travel restrictions and associated hardships, including food shortages, secondary deaths and economic damage.
Loud calls for democracy and the rule of law and – in Shanghai – for the resignation of head of state Xi Jinping were also heard at some rallies. Observers say those who have protested against Xi and the government are likely to face harsh punishment as authorities try to remind citizens of their zero tolerance for dissent.
The protests also coincided with the death of former Chinese leader Jiang Zemin. The 96-year-old, who rose to become the leader of the Communist Party during the Tiananmen Square protests and then led years of economic expansion, died on Wednesday, state media said. The timing has alarmed observers — there is a tradition in China for people to use public mourning events for former leaders to express dissatisfaction with the current regime.