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Monday 30 January 2023 Dublin: 6°C
Protesters hold up blank papers and chant slogans as they march in protest in Beijing yesterday.
'Zero-covid' protests are spreading in China but why is the country persisting with the policy?
China the only major country still pursuing zero covid, a policy that includes snap lockdowns and lengthy quarantines.

PROTESTS HAVE BEEN taking place across China against Covid-19 lockdowns and in support of greater political freedoms.

The BBC has said that one of its journalists who was covering a protest in Shanghai was assaulted and detained by Chinese police.

In a statement, the BBC said the Chinese officials who arrested journalist Ed Lawrence claimed he was “arrested for his own good in case he caught Covid from the crowd”.

The BBC said it does “not consider this a credible explanation”.

The current wave of protests are against China’s “zero-Covid policy”, which has seen the enforcement of snap lockdowns and lengthy quarantines.

However, Chinese authorities have affirmed their commitment to a severe zero-Covid strategy despite crowds demanding the resignation of President Xi Jinping during protests against measures that confine millions of people to their homes.

But what was the catalyst for the protests against the zero-covid policy, and why is China the only major country still pursuing zero-covid?

Fatal fire

Last Friday, Chinese state media reported that ten people were killed and nine injured in a fire in a residential building in the northwestern Xinjiang region.

The blaze broke out in a high-rise residential building in the regional capital Urumqi on Thursday night.

However, the fatal fire spurred an outpouring of anger at the country’s zero-Covid policy.

Online posts circulating on both Chinese and overseas social media platforms since Friday have claimed that lengthy Covid lockdowns in the city hampered rescue attempts.

The city has been under strict Covid restrictions since early August.

Some videos appeared to show crowds of people taking to the streets of Urumqi to protest against the measures.

A wave of anger simmered on China’s Weibo social media platform on Friday amid claims that parked electric vehicles left without power during lengthy lockdowns blocked fire engines from entering a narrow road to the burning building.

Chinese authorities censor online content deemed politically sensitive and appeared to have scrubbed many posts and hashtags relating to the fire by Saturday morning.

Urumqi police said in a Friday post on Weibo that they had detained a woman for “spreading online rumours” relating to the number of casualties from the blaze.

While the Urumqi mayor Maimaitiming Kade offered a rare formal apology for the blaze at a briefing, officials pushed back against some of the online allegations, denying that residents’ doors had been clamped shut with iron wiring.

But in the wake of the protests, officials on Saturday said the city “had basically reduced social transmissions to zero” and would “restore the normal order of life for residents in low-risk areas in a staged and orderly manner”.

Meanwhile in Beijing, the city government said yesterday afternoon that it will not allow snap lockdowns of residential areas to be in place for more than 24 hours.

Pandemic fatigue has been growing in China in tandem with record breaking cases figures.

Yesterday, the country reported a fifth consecutive daily record of new Covid cases, with 40,347 new infections.

World Cup coverage

Meanwhile, China’s state broadcaster is cutting close-up shots of maskless fans at the Qatar World Cup, after early coverage sparked anger at home.

During a live broadcast of Sunday’s group game between Japan and Costa Rica, state broadcaster CCTV Sports replaced close-up shots of maskless fans waving flags with images of players, officials or the football stadium.

CCTV Sports showed distant shots of the crowd where it was difficult to make out individual faces, and fewer crowd shots compared.

Tens of millions of people in major cities including Beijing, Guangzhou and Chongqing were under some form of lockdown as of Sunday – a contrast with the raucous World Cup crowds that have infuriated many Chinese social media users.

An open letter questioning the country’s Covid-19 policies and asking if China was “on the same planet” as Qatar spread on the popular WeChat messaging app last week, before censors removed it from the platform.

Record numbers

China recorded a total of 31,444 domestic cases last Wednesday, the National Health Bureau said.

Then followed five consecutive daily records, with 40,347 new cases yesterday.

The numbers are relatively small when compared with China’s vast population of 1.4 billion and tiny when compared to caseloads in the West at the height of the pandemic.

But under Beijing’s strict zero-Covid policy, even tiny outbreaks can shut down entire cities and place contacts of infected patients into strict quarantine.

Zero-Covid

A series of new rules announced by Beijing earlier this month appeared to signal a shift away from the strategy, easing quarantine requirements for entering the country and simplifying a system for designating high-risk areas.

But rising case numbers has led some of these curbs being reimposed.

Meanwhile, China has not yet approved more effective mRNA vaccines for public use, opting instead for Chinese-made vaccines.

About 86% of adults over 60 have received two doses of domestic vaccines, while only 70% of those aged over 60 have availed of a third covid jab.

Chinese officials have struggled to convince some, especially the elderly, to get vaccinated.

In July of this year, Beijing’s health authorities confirmed that vaccines had been given to the country’s top leaders in a bid to reassure the population about their quality in the face of dwindling inoculation rates.

Yanzhong Huang is a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations.

He told AFP that opening up too suddenly could cause a “viral wave that results in mass die-off and quickly overwhelms its fragile healthcare system”.

Despite this, Huang warned that another year of zero-Covid could mean the “Chinese economy will be derailed and social tensions may reach a tipping level, which threatens regime stability and may even cause a legitimacy crisis”.

With additional reporting by AFP © AFP 2022 

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