China loosens COVID restrictions in wake of anti-lockdown protests

China on Wednesday announced a further loosening of its COVID-19 prevention measures, allowing the majority of cases and contacts to quarantine at home in an apparent bid to stave off further anti-lockdown protests and kickstart the economy.

Under the new rules, anyone found to have mild or no symptoms following a positive test for the virus will be allowed to isolate at home if they choose, the country"s health ministry told a news conference in Beijing.

A positive test result had previously meant a person could be hauled off willy-nilly by bus to a quarantine camp, often located a long way out of town, and made to pay for room and board in often substandard facilities.

The directive also warns local authorities not to designate an area "high risk" without good cause, and bans any form of forcible confinement or barriers in areas under lockdown.

"Non-high-risk areas shall not restrict the flow of people, and shall not suspend work, production, or business," the directive said, in the central government"s most detailed and specific set of instructions to local authorities to emerge in months.

The new rules come days after a wave of anti-lockdown protests in Chinese cities at the end of November, sparked by a fatal fire in Xinjiang"s regional capital Urumqi in which some victims were prevented from leaving by pandemic prevention measures.

Ban on blocking fire exits

They ban any kind of blockage of fire exits or main entrances to office buildings, dormitories or residential apartment buildings, and require streamlined processes to ensure anyone needing medical supplies or treatment can access it from areas under lockdown.

In another apparent nod to the protests, many of which were started by students, the rules also laid down the law to universities, where students have repeatedly complained of prolonged confinement to their dorms, where they were expected to study for their degrees using online classes and resources.

"Campuses without infections must carry out normal offline teaching activities, while supermarkets, canteens, stadiums, and libraries on campus must operate as normal," the directive said.
A woman gets swabbed to be tested for COVID-19 at a nucleic acid testing site in Shanghai, China, Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2022. Credit: Reuters
"These further optimization measures aim to save lives and protect people"s health and safety while also minimizing the impact of the pandemic on economic and social development," National Health Commission spokesperson Mi Feng told journalists.

Epidemiologist Liang Wannian said China now has an array of effective treatments for COVID-19 that it can produce on its own, including antibody therapies, small molecule drugs and traditional Chinese medicines, while its healthcare systems have three years" experience in fighting the coronavirus.

But the new measures will need to be paired with a boost to the vaccination program, particularly for older age groups, Liang said.

"[We must also] pay close attention to any changes in the transmissibility and pathogenicity of the virus," he said. 

‘White paper revolution’

Former Hong Kong Baptist University politics professor Benson Wong said the new rules were a clear response to recent anti-lockdown protests across China.

"Beijing is never going to admit that these policy changes are due to the protests, but everyone can see it"s happened because of the "white paper" revolution," Wong said in a reference to protests in which people held up blank sheets of paper in protest at curbs on freedom of speech.

A delivery driver picks up medicine from a pharmacy in Beijing, Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2022. Credit: Reuters

Current affairs commentator Si Ling said the new rules don"t appear to mean the end of Communist Party leader Xi Jinping"s zero-COVID policy.

"Even if they relax restrictions in some places, they could be locked down again with no warning, and no chance of escape," Si told Radio Free Asia. "Also, the Chinese government has already used pandemic controls to shackle groups and voices that it doesn"t like, using the Health Code app to restrict their personal freedom or forcing them into quarantine camps."

He said economic confidence would be slow to return if Xi persisted in his plans to broaden state control over the economy.

Hong Kong

In Hong Kong, where the authorities have largely tracked Beijing"s zero-COVID policy fairly closely, officials hadn"t commented by the end of office hours on Wednesday.

Wong said recent comments from Hong Kong security chief Chris Tang describing the anti-lockdown protests as a "color revolution" had met with scant response from Beijing or the media organizations it controls, despite the phrase originating from the typical official response to protests on Chinese soil.

"Maybe the central government intends to deal with it in a low-key manner," he said. 

Hong Kong officials were likely having trouble interpreting the latest directive out of Beijing, he said.

"Neither the chief executive [John Lee] nor his officials have come out to say anything about this yet," Wong said. "It"s as if they are out of touch with what"s going on higher up."

Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.


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