President Xi Jinping suggested the spread of the less lethal Omicron strain might allow China to loosen its zero-Covid policy, senior EU officials reported Friday, as cities across the country made further moves towards unwinding some restrictions.
Discontent with China’s hardline pandemic response spilled onto the streets last weekend and expanded into calls for more political freedom, in widespread demonstrations not seen in decades.
China’s vast security apparatus has moved swiftly to smother the rallies, deploying a heavy police presence while boosting online censorship and surveillance of the population.
In his first known comments on the protests, Xi told European Union chief Charles Michel that the demonstrators were “mainly students or teenagers in university” who were fed up with Covid restrictions when the pair met in Beijing on Thursday, senior officials speaking on condition of anonymity said.
Xi complained “that after three years of Covid that he had an issue because people were frustrated”, they said.
They added that Xi had told Michel that given most cases in China were now of the Omicron variant, that “opens the way for more openness of the restrictions than what we have already seen in some regions”.
Chinese central government officials have already signalled that a broader relaxation of the zero-Covid policy could be in the works.
Speaking at the National Health Commission Wednesday, Vice Premier Sun Chunlan said the Omicron variant was weakening and vaccination rates were improving, according to the state-run Xinhua news agency.
A central figure behind Beijing’s pandemic response, Sun said this “new situation” required “new tasks”.
She made no mention of zero-Covid in those remarks or in another meeting on Thursday, suggesting the approach, which has disrupted the economy and daily life, might soon be relaxed.
– Home quarantine? –
A number of cities have now begun loosening Covid restrictions, slowly moving away from daily mass testing and compulsory central quarantine — a tedious mainstay of life under zero-Covid policy.
But sporadic localised clashes have continued to flare up.
Social media footage posted Thursday night and geolocated by AFP showed dozens of people clashing with health workers in hazmat suits outside a school in Yicheng, in central China’s Hubei province.
The author of the post said people in the video were parents of students who had tested positive for the virus and been taken to quarantine facilities.
Parents are seen kneeling in front of the school gate, pleading to take their children home. Another video showed at least a dozen police officers at the scene.
But signs have emerged of a possible shift in the policy of sending positive cases to central quarantine facilities.
An analysis by state-run newspaper People’s Daily on Friday quoted a number of health experts supporting local government moves to allow patients to quarantine at home, which would be a marked departure from current rules.
When called on Friday, some officials in the Chaoyang district of Beijing said people who tested positive there would no longer have to go to central quarantine.
Authorities in the southern factory hub of Dongguan on Thursday also said those who meet “specific conditions” should be allowed to quarantine at home. They did not specify what those conditions would be.
Shenzhen, a southern tech hub, on Wednesday rolled out a similar policy.
– Testing loosens up –
The southwestern metropolis of Chengdu from Friday no longer required a recent negative test result to enter public places or ride the metro, instead only demanding a green health code on an app confirming people have not travelled to a “high-risk” area.
Beijing also announced Friday that using public transport in the city would no longer require a negative PCR test taken within 48 hours.
The day before, the capital’s health authorities called on hospitals not to deny treatment to people without a 48-hour test.
In January, a pregnant woman in the city of Xi’an miscarried after being refused hospital entry for not having a PCR result.
China has seen a string of deaths after treatment was delayed by Covid restrictions, including the recent death of a four-month-old baby who was stuck in quarantine with her father.
Those cases became a rallying cry during the protests, with a viral post listing the names of those who died because of alleged negligence linked to the pandemic response.
Many other cities with virus outbreaks are allowing restaurants, shopping malls and even schools to reopen, in a clear departure from previous tough lockdown rules.
In the northwestern city of Urumqi, where the fire that killed ten people and became the catalyst for the anti-lockdown protests took place, authorities announced Friday that supermarkets, hotels, restaurants and ski resorts would gradually be reopened.
The city of more than four million in the far-western Xinjiang region endured one of China’s longest lockdowns, with some areas shut from early August.