June 14, 2024

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The Legal System

China relaxes COVID restrictions amid rare nationwide protests

Until recently, cities across the country had been tightening their lockdowns and building new quarantine shelters amid surging COVID-19 cases. But after popular frustration erupted in nationwide demonstrations last weekend, many are making an about-turn.

Beijing this week has begun to allow people who contract COVID-19 and their close contacts to quarantine at home instead of forcing them to go to hospitals or warehouselike centers. The southern city of Guangzhou, which saw a string of major protests, has opened up several locked-down districts and stopped mass testing. It also began allowing people to eat in restaurants again. Meanwhile, Chinese epidemiologists and other experts have started downplaying the risks of COVID-19 – signaling an effort by the government to tamp down fear among a public that has so far been warned to avoid the virus at all costs.

Why We Wrote This

The Chinese government is making a swift but careful pivot away from its strict “zero-COVID” regulations after mass protests this week. The shifts, though incremental, are a reminder that public pressure can spark change, even within a top-down government.

These small but meaningful steps show how popular opposition can propel change in the authoritarian country, as it has over other public concerns such as air pollution and food safety in recent years.

“It appears that even the central government overestimated people’s ability to endure all the pain,” says Yanzhong Huang, director of the Center for Global Health Studies at Seton Hall University. “I don’t think the [zero-COVID-19] approach can be sustained that long.”

A small crowd of Beijing residents gathered on an ancient lane in the city’s Chaoyang District, arguing with workers who were building a 10-foot-tall corrugated metal fence to seal off their neighborhood last week amid a rapid surge in COVID-19 cases.

Workers were walling off multiple routes inside the maze of alleys known as hutongs, restricting population movement and causing mini traffic jams of bicycles, motorbikes, delivery carts, and cars as they tried to squeeze through the few narrow outlets.

“It’s because of the outbreak!” a woman said with exasperation, walking away after residents failed to stop the blockage. “We can still get out on another lane,” another woman said with resignation.

Why We Wrote This

The Chinese government is making a swift but careful pivot away from its strict “zero-COVID” regulations after mass protests this week. The shifts, though incremental, are a reminder that public pressure can spark change, even within a top-down government.

But all the freshly built barricades in the neighborhood were suddenly dismantled after popular frustration erupted in rare nationwide protests in Beijing and other cities over China’s strict “zero-COVID” policies last weekend. “It’s strictly forbidden to use hard partitions and hard fences to block fire exits and community entrances,” stressed Wang Daguang, Beijing’s official in charge of community COVID-19 prevention, on Monday.

The about-turn is one of several small but meaningful steps taken by Beijing and other cities in the aftermath of the protests to relax the stringent policy of lockdowns, quarantines, and constant testing that has grown ever more intrusive amid a record COVID-19 outbreak in China. It demonstrates how popular opposition can propel change in the authoritarian country, as it has over other public concerns such as air pollution and food safety in recent years.

Ann Scott Tyson/The Christian Science Monitor

Beijing residents try to get through a barricade before workers completely seal off the street in Beijing on Nov. 25, 2022.

“It appears that even the central government overestimated people’s ability to endure all the pain,” says Yanzhong Huang, director of the Center for Global Health Studies at Seton Hall University. “Given the rising social discontent … I don’t think the [zero-COVID-19] approach can be sustained that long.”