Chinese Authorities Soften Tone on Covid Curbs Amid Protests

Chinese health officials have softened their message about Covid-19 risks, urging local governments to avoid unnecessary and lengthy lockdowns, after protesters across the country denounced the strict controls.

A health official said at a press conference on Tuesday that the Omicron variant has caused fewer deaths and less serious illness than previous Covid variants.

“International and local monitoring data confirm that the pathogenicity and virulence of Omicron mutant strains is significantly weaker than the original strain and variant strains such as Delta,” researcher Chang Zhaorui of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention told reporters. .

In a rare show of defiance, crowds in China gathered for the third night as protests against Covid restrictions spread to Beijing, Shanghai and other cities. People held blank papers symbolizing censorship and demanded the resignation of the Chinese president. Photo: Kyodo News/Zuma Press

Just last week, health officials were still emphasizing the high contagion of Omicron.

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Researchers say it’s unclear whether the softened message will translate into concrete actions by local authorities, which depend on Beijing’s dual mandate to enforce Covid controls and ensure people’s livelihoods.

Protests have erupted in major cities in China over President Xi Jinping’s zero-tolerance approach to Covid-19. They began on Friday in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang’s remote region, where some residents have accused the months-long curfews of contributing to the deaths of 10 people during a fire there.

Chinese authorities on Tuesday tightened controls on protesters and sent police to prevent new gatherings, as state media reiterated their support for Mr. Xi’s strict epidemic strategy.

At the same time, Chinese health officials responded to public anger by recalibrating their messages about the dangers posed by the virus.

When asked about Tuesday’s protests, Mi Feng, spokesperson for China’s National Health Commission, said authorities are making adjustments to Covid control measures to protect the population and economy as the disease develops.

Chinese state media echoed the change in tone. On Tuesday, Beijing News, a Communist Party-run newspaper, published interviews with several recovered Covid patients who said their symptoms were mild and had no long-term effects. Previous media reports had highlighted the dangers of the virus.

An article titled “People First, Not Covid Control First” published by the Zhejiang provincial government on the social media platform WeChat on Tuesday said that the Kovid restrictions are not aimed at controlling people, but at preventing the spread of viruses.

Weifeng Zhong, a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., said China’s new messaging efforts seem too isolated and localized from a centralized propaganda campaign. “They seem to still be sticking to the policy, but they are promising to do it more leniently,” Mr. Zhong said after watching Tuesday’s briefing.

While some investors think China will soon loosen its COVID-19 strategy, others are taking a more cautious stance.

Expectations of a gradual reopening inside and outside of China rose earlier this month as health officials issued a series of measures to ease some of the Covid control rules.

Neysun Mahboubi, a Chinese legal and political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania, said this policy tweak likely played a role in the current demonstrations because it raised expectations of normalcy before authorities doubled down on containment measures as Covid case numbers rise.

“It was a perfect storm. Those who relaxed the measures, watched the World Cup, saw people without masks in the stands, and then we got fired. [in Xinjiang]said Mr Mahboubi. “It was a flammable mixture.”

In recent days, virus cases in China have surpassed the previous peak seen in April during the Shanghai lockdown. The country has registered more than 37,000 new cases of Covid-19 on Monday, health officials said on Tuesday.

Mahboubi said that if the authorities manage to increase the vaccination rate in the coming months, it will show that they have finally taken concrete steps to end the zero-Kovid policy.

Some Chinese, especially the elderly, felt less urgency to get vaccinated as China managed to limit infections. Slightly more than 90% of Chinese were fully vaccinated on Monday, according to official data, but only 66% of those aged 80 and over were fully vaccinated.

Write to Liyan Qi at liyan.qi@wsj.com

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