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BEIJING, CHINA: Two men wear masks as they wait at a nearly empty shopping mall where all stores are closed, on 2 December 2022 in Beijing, China. In recent days, China has been recording its highest number of COVID-19 cases since the pandemic began. While some restrictions have been relaxed, authorities are sticking to their approach to containing the virus with lockdowns, mandatory testing, mask mandates, and quarantines. (Photo by Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)

China to Ease Some COVID-19 Restrictions Following Protest Movement

After years of strict health and safety measures and a major protest movement, Chinese officials are expected to ease some COVID-19 restrictions in some cities.

“We should prioritize stability while pursuing progress: take baby steps, but don’t stop going, to optimize the COVID policy,” said Vice Premier Sun Chunlun, who leads China’s coronavirus response efforts, in a discussion on Thursday.

Reuters reports that officials plan to allow some people who test positive for the virus to quarantine at home—pregnant women, elderly people, and people with underlying illnesses—along with their close contacts if the home meets certain conditions. 

“Authorities will also step up antigen tests for the new coronavirus and reduce the frequency of mass testing and regular nucleic acid tests,” according to sources who spoke to Reuters. Additionally, health officials will prioritize providing booster vaccine doses to seniors.

China has had some of the strictest protocols in response to COVID-19 in the world, dubbed the “zero-COVID policy,” locking down entire cities and regions when individuals have tested positive for the virus. While limiting the spread of the virus, these measures have also disrupted people’s lives, domestic transit, medical care and access to food, the manufacturing sector, and global supply chains, as well as limited travel and major events.

The ongoing strain of lockdowns recently resulted in one of the most prominent protest movements in China in decades. Protestors took to the streets at the end of November in Shanghai, Nanjing, Chengdu, Chongqing, Urumqi, and Korla to call for the end of the zero-COVID policy, the Associated Press reports.

In an interview with the AP, a Shanghai protester said participants were yelling “Xi Jinping, step down, Communist Party, step down,” and “Unlock Xinjiang, unlock China.”

Many social media posts about the protest movement were deleted by China’s censors, while local security forces dispersed protesters with pepper spray and tear gas before police and paramilitary troops made a major show of force to disrupt protesters in Beijing.

“An unknown number of people were detained and it’s unclear if any will face charges,” according to the AP. “Most protesters focused their anger on the ‘zero-COVID’ policy that seeks to eradicate the virus through sweeping lockdowns, travel restrictions and relentless testing. But some called for the party and its leader Xi Jinping to step down, speech the party considers subversive and punishable by years in prison.”

While the easing of some health restrictions marks a potential turning point in how China is attempting to limit the spread of COVID-19, officials are not eliminating the zero-COVID policy altogether. Restrictions could remain until at least the middle of 2023 and be further disrupted as new variants emerge that are more contagious. On Friday, for instance, China recorded 35,000 new COVID-19 cases—a significant figure for the nation.

There are also political concerns about easing restrictions.

“Some local leaders in China’s rust-belt regions have been more reluctant to loosen controls, in part because zero-COVID was linked with loyalty to President Xi Jinping, who has tried to assert near-absolute control as he enters an unprecedented third term as China’s top leader,” The Washington Post reports.

To maintain control, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) needs to stop the most visible of the COVID-19 protests and offer people hope by relying more on masking, isolating people who are sick, importing and licensing Western therapies for COVID-19, and easing lockdowns, said John Culver, a nonresident senior fellow at the Global China Hub and a former U.S. national intelligence officer for East Asia, in a comment from the Atlantic Council.

“The crisis so far is not sufficient for factions to form among elites, especially so soon after Xi’s complete victory in October,” Culver explained. “But there’s a perfect storm potential where the regime relies on the stick; doesn’t provide hope or a plan to get out of ZCP [zero-COVID policy] hell; and protests spread, build, and are sustained. For watchers in the United States, discerning when factional formation is happening will be much harder today than in 1989, when then CCP General Secretary Zhao Ziyang’s split was public, on global TV, and on the front page of People’s Daily for weeks.

“Instead, discerning it will take a tea-leaf reading of who shows up where during the Lunar New Year, the comments made by departing figures like Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, or any public emergence of former party chiefs Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, who implicitly criticized Xi via his ZCP policies. If there’s going to be a major 1989-scale political crisis, it will have to start at the top, not from the grassroots. If grassroots events show Xi’s opponents that there’s a need and opportunity, that’s when the real crisis for Xi and the CCP would start.”