China to ease COVID restrictions after week of historic protests

  • China allows home quarantine, cuts mass testing – sources
  • Severity of virus wanes, senior official says
  • The shift comes after a series of demonstrations
  • The largest public rebellion in a decade

BEIJING, Dec 1 (Reuters) – China will announce in coming days the easing of its COVID-19 quarantine protocols and a reduction in mass testing, sources told Reuters, in a rage over the world’s toughest restrictions. Protests for a notable shift in policy followed by widespread dissemination.

The number of cases nationwide remains near record highs, but has shifted as some cities have lifted lockdowns in recent days, with a senior official saying the virus’s ability to make people sick is waning.

Health authorities announced the easing of restrictions in their regions, but made no mention of the protests — China’s largest civil disobedience in years, from candlelight vigils in Beijing to street clashes with police in Guangzhou.

The measures to be announced include reducing mass testing and regular nucleic acid testing, as well as measures to allow positive cases and close contacts to be isolated at home under certain conditions, people familiar with the matter said.

It’s a sharp departure from earlier protocols, which led to public frustration as entire communities were locked down, sometimes for weeks, after even one positive case.

Frustration boiled over last week in mainland China, which saw public demonstrations of defiance unprecedented since President Xi Jinping came to power in 2012, at a time when the economy is set to enter a new era of much slower growth than it has seen in decades.

change the rules

Less than 24 hours after Tuesday’s violent protests in Guangzhou, authorities in at least seven districts of the sprawling manufacturing hub said they were lifting temporary lockdowns. One district said it would allow schools, restaurants and businesses including movie theaters to reopen.

Cities such as Chongqing and Zhengzhou also announced loosening restrictions.

The sense of a shift in direction was further fueled by state media reports that Vice Premier Sun Chunlan, who oversees COVID efforts, said the virus’ ability to cause disease was weakening.

“As the pathogenicity of the Omicron virus weakens, more people are vaccinated and experience in containing the virus is accumulated, the country is facing a new situation and new tasks for epidemic prevention and control,” Sun said in comments reported by state media.

Sun also urged further “optimization” of testing, treatment and quarantine policies.

The mention of reduced pathogenicity contrasts with earlier information from authorities about the virus’ lethality.

“In addition to the significant relaxation of COVID control measures in Guangzhou yesterday, Sun’s speech sent another strong signal that the zero-COVID policy will come to an end in the coming months,” analysts at Nomura Securities said in a research note.

“These two events may herald the beginning of the end of zero COVID.”

In the capital, Beijing, some communities are already preparing for change.

A community in the east of the city is conducting an online poll this week on the likelihood of a positive case being quarantined at home, residents said.

“Whatever the outcome, I certainly welcome our resident community’s decision to take this vote,” said Tom Simpson, China managing director at the China-Britain Business Council.

His main concern, he said, is being forced into an isolation facility, where conditions are “dire to say the least”.

Hu Xijin, a prominent nationalist commentator, posted on social media on Wednesday that many asymptomatic coronavirus carriers in Beijing had been quarantined at home.

reopening next year?

Expectations are growing around the world that China, while still struggling to contain infections, may consider reopening its borders sometime next year once it achieves higher vaccination rates among undecided older adults.

Health experts warn that if COVID is unleashed before vaccination rates ramp up, it will cause widespread illness and death.

Chinese stocks and global markets initially fell following weekend protests in Shanghai, Beijing and other cities, but recovered on hopes that public pressure could lead to fresh measures from authorities.

More COVID outbreaks could weigh on China’s economic activity in the near term, the IMF said on Wednesday, adding that it saw room to safely readjust policies that could allow growth to pick up in 2023.

China’s strict containment measures have dampened domestic economic activity this year and spread to other countries through supply chain disruptions.

Following downbeat data from an official survey on Wednesday, the Caixin/S&P Global Manufacturing Purchasing Managers Index showed factory activity shrank for a fourth straight month in more

While the change in tone on COVID appears to be a response to public displeasure with the strict measures, authorities are also seeking to question those who took part in the demonstrations.

China Dissent Watch, run by the U.S. government-funded Freedom House, estimated there were at least 27 demonstrations across China from Saturday to Monday. The Australian ASPI think tank estimated 51 protests in 24 cities.

Additional reporting by Julie Zhu in Hong Kong and Kevin Huang and Ellen Zhang in Beijing; Writing by Marius Zaharia and John Geddie; Editing by Michael Perry and Robert Birsel

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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