Guangzhou partially lifted a weeks-long lockdown, a departure from strict enforcement of China’s stringent Covid-zero policy, despite the city of 18 million suffering its worst Covid-19 outbreak since the start of the pandemic.
Officials in the southern industrial hub on Wednesday eased movement restrictions in about half of the city’s 11 districts, including Haizhu, where migrant workers clashed with police last month.
The easing of restrictions came a day after Beijing blamed local governments for dealing with outbreaks that sparked protests in more than 20 cities.
“People on the streets are saying we are free,” said William Zi, a resident of Haizhu. “I don’t know if it’s the end of the pandemic – it’s been 20 days at home, so at least now we’re free.”
Local officials’ announcement to ease the lockdowns followed direct approval from Beijing, two people familiar with the decision said. The timing of the measures, despite nearly 7,000 new cases reported on Wednesday, was seen as an indication of a broader change in policy direction.
“I think they are doing a test here in Guangzhou to see if it works. 🇧🇷 🇧🇷 if, even if they do less mass testing and don’t enforce the really strict lockdowns, Covid can still be controlled,” said Jin Dong-yan, a virologist at the University of Hong Kong.
“If it works, they can do the same in other Chinese cities.”
The easing lifted stocks in Hong Kong as investors looked for a way out of Xi Jinping’s Covid-zero policy that has hurt sentiment in the world’s second-largest economy.
Earlier on Wednesday, the US envoy to China urged Xi’s government not to interfere with peaceful demonstrations, just as a Communist Party security chief warned against “hostile” forces.
China has been rocked by vigils for a deadly apartment fire in Urumqi, Xinjiang, which has been partly blamed on coronavirus restrictions, which have evolved into demonstrations against Xi’s Covid-zero policy and state censorship.
“We believe the Chinese people have the right to peacefully protest, they have the right to voice their opinions, they have the right to be heard,” Ambassador Nicholas Burns said during a video call from Beijing with the Chicago Council on Global Affairs on Wednesday. fair.
“This is a fundamental right across the world – it should be – and this right must not be impeded, and it must not be interfered with,” he said.
Chinese officials have barely addressed the protests, most of which appeared to have been quelled on Monday.
However, in a speech carried by state media late on Tuesday, Chen Wenqing, head of the Central Commission for Political and Legal Affairs, said the government needed to resolve disputes “in a timely manner” by maintaining order.
🇧🇷[We] must resolutely crack down on infiltration and sabotage activities by hostile forces, as well as illegal and criminal activities that disrupt social order,” Chen told the official Xinhua news agency. “Social stability must be ensured.”
Since the Urumqi fire last week, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute has tracked more than 40 public protests across 22 Chinese cities, including four on Monday.
Experts warned of brutal reprisals against an unknown number of people detained over the weekend in cities including Beijing, Shanghai, Wuhan and Chengdu. China’s criminal conviction rate is 99%, and the state is known for cracking down on dissent.
Burns noted a “very heavy security presence here in Beijing and in major cities across China”.
The pandemic, Burns added, “really disrupted normal life” and reduced normal diplomatic activity, including visits to check on the health and rights of Americans detained in the country.
“We have a large number of Americans in prisons in China. 🇧🇷 🇧🇷 we haven’t been able to see most of the American prisoners here in the last three years,” he said.
There were more mixed signals on Wednesday as lockdowns eased in some areas, local authorities in others tightened restrictions in response to the wave of Covid infections.
In Zhengzhou, the central city where the world’s largest iPhone factory is located, authorities lifted citywide lockdowns before adding new restrictions in dozens of “high risk” areas a few hours later.
Meanwhile, state-affiliated media in Beijing published detailed accounts of people’s experiences with the Covid infection, an early step towards normalizing the virus after three years of focusing on its dangers.
Authorities also warned that the health system was overwhelmed amid a surge in cases, with the capital’s centralized quarantine capacity three-quarters full.
China reported 36,683 new locally transmitted cases on Wednesday, slightly below the previous day’s total but well above the daily peak of cases reported during a major outbreak in April. The highest numbers of cases were reported in Chongqing and Guangdong provinces, with around 8,000 new cases each.
Additional reporting by William Langley, Ryan McMorrow and Hudson Lockett; Editing by William Langley