Beijing moves to defuse protests with carrot-and-stick policy, announces plan to boost elderly COVID-19 vaccination

Health officials unveiled a plan to boost vaccination rates among the elderly, a key metric that the government has cited to justify the “zero-COVID” policy

November 29, 2022 09:13 pm | Updated November 30, 2022 10:34 am IST - Beijing

Police form a cordon  during a protest against Chinas strict zero COVID measures on November 27, 2022 in Beijing, China

Police form a cordon during a protest against Chinas strict zero COVID measures on November 27, 2022 in Beijing, China | Photo Credit: Getty Images

China’s government on November 29 said it would launch a new push to vaccinate the elderly—a key step that would enable an eventual easing of the unpopular “zero-COVID” policy—while also pledging to crack down on activities that “disrupt social order”.

The ruling Chinese Communist Party leadership has not yet directly commented on the widespread and unprecedented protests over the weekend in cities across China, but has appeared to respond with a two-pronged approach to deal with rising public anger over continuing lockdown restrictions.

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On Tuesday, health officials unveiled a plan to boost vaccination rates among the elderly, a key metric that the government has cited to justify the “zero-COVID” policy warning that opening up would lead to mass deaths.

Officials said of the 30 million Chinese aged 80 and above, 65% had completed the three doses of Chinese vaccines required to prevent hospitalisation and death, up from 40% last month. The push would continue to vaccinate the vulnerable, focusing for instance on nursing homes, and would now reduce the interval between doses from six months to three, the National Health Commission said, even as the country continues to deal with a COVID-19 wave of 40,000 daily cases.

Officials of the commission at a daily briefing indirectly acknowledged the protests, and called on local officials to better respond to “reasonable” requests from the public. Cheng Youquan, an official of the National Disease Control and Prevention Administration, said “the problems highlighted by the public” were “not aimed at the epidemic prevention but focus on simplifying prevention and control measures”.

China’s security officials have, however, struck a harder tone, reflecting the other side of the response to the protests. With a heavy deployment of security personnel in many Chinese cities including Beijing and Shanghai, the protests of the weekend have not been reported. On Monday, a gathering in Hangzhou in the east was broken up by a heavy deployment of police.

On Monday, Politburo member Chen Wenqing who heads the powerful Central Political and Legal Committee that controls law enforcement including the police, told a meeting of the committee that political and legal organs needed “to resolutely maintain national security and social stability.” “It is necessary to resolve contradictions and disputes in a timely manner to help solve the actual difficulties of the people,” he said, “and it is necessary to resolutely combat hostile forces, resolutely combat crimes that disrupt the social order, and effectively maintain the stability of the overall social situation.”

People hold white sheets of paper in protest of COVID-19 restrictions, after a vigil for the victims of a fire in Urumqi, as outbreaks of the coronavirus disease continue in Beijing, China, on November 27, 2022.

People hold white sheets of paper in protest of COVID-19 restrictions, after a vigil for the victims of a fire in Urumqi, as outbreaks of the coronavirus disease continue in Beijing, China, on November 27, 2022. | Photo Credit: Reuters

Several universities have said they will send students home early for the winter break and even pay for their journeys home, in a bid to defuse the protests seen in more than 50 campuses. Police in several cities have also been conducting random checks of smartphones for banned apps such as Telegram, which were believed to have been used to share information and organise some of the gatherings that called for an end to lockdowns.

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