As China reaffirms zero-COVID, a rare Beijing protest

Banners were displayed on a bridge in the district of Haidian, calling for an end to the policy. “Food, not COVID tests,” it read. “Reform, not a Cultural Revolution. Freedom, not lockdowns. Votes, not a leader. Dignity, not lies. Citizens, not slaves”.

Updated - October 13, 2022 07:42 pm IST

Published - October 13, 2022 03:49 pm IST - Beijing

Medical workers in protective suits gather swabs from passengers for nucleic acid testing, at an arrival hall of Shanghai Hongqiao International Airport, following the COVID-19 outbreak in Shanghai, China, on October 12, 2022.

Medical workers in protective suits gather swabs from passengers for nucleic acid testing, at an arrival hall of Shanghai Hongqiao International Airport, following the COVID-19 outbreak in Shanghai, China, on October 12, 2022. | Photo Credit: Reuters

Dashing expectations of many in China of an easing in the stringent “zero-COVID” regime following next week’s Communist Party congress, the official People’s Daily newspaper has defended a continuation of the policy as “sustainable”.

While sparing China mass deaths, the third straight year of “zero-COVID” has inflicted economic pain even as the testing and lockdown measures that held firm in 2020 and 2021 have been challenged by new variants, leading to harsher lockdowns. China is currently dealing with among its biggest spread of cases since the early days of the pandemic.

Social media showed images of a rare protest in Beijing on Thursday – despite the current blanket of security ahead of Sunday’s Communist Party congress – with banners displayed on a bridge in the district of Haidian, home to universities and tech firms, calling for an end to the policy. The banners were taken down by the police.

China’s vast Xinjiang hit with COVID-19 travel restrictions

“Food, not COVID tests,” it read. “Reform, not a Cultural Revolution. Freedom, not lockdowns. Votes, not a leader. Dignity, not lies. Citizens, not slaves”.

Days ahead of the October 16 congress that is set to confirm President Xi Jinping’s third term, the People’s Daily, however, strongly defended the policy, publishing, starting from Monday, three commentaries supporting the policy in three consecutive editions, and slamming those advocating a loosening for “lying flat”.

“If there is a large-scale COVID-19 resurgence, the spread of the epidemic will have a serious impact on economic and social development, and the final cost will be higher and the loss will be greater,” it said.

Zero-COVID has been framed as one of Mr. Xi’s key legacies as he completes a decade at the helm, and contrasted with mass deaths in the West. The political narrative surrounding it had been seen as one reason for its continuation until the congress.

However, there are few signs of loosening even as Mr. Xi’s third term begins. Chinese health experts have said a moving away from the policy would require a sustained vaccination booster campaign, as well as a significant change in the current government messaging that portrays COVID-19 as a life-threatening disease. A shift, experts say, would require several months of preparation on both fronts.

The economic costs and lockdowns have, however, left the public less supportive of a policy that most backed in 2020 and 2021, as China enjoyed a degree of normalcy such as open schools and factories as the rest of the world reeled from the virus.

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