The Chinese government has ordered technology companies to hire more censors as its suppression of rare nationwide protests against strict Covid rules intensified.
The Cyberspace Administration of China, which sets strict rules governing internet use, issued guidance to technology giants including Tencent and TikTok owner Bytedance on Thursday. It called on them to pay closer attention to information being shared about the protests, reported The Wall Street Journal.
Officials were also instructed to tell Chinese search engines to block searches for virtual private networks (VPNs) - which are used to access banned sites like Twitter, where people have shared footage and pictures of protests.
Of particular interest to the censors were details of protests at Chinese universities, as well as online discussion of the fire that killed 10 people in the locked down city of Urumqi, Xinjiang, last Friday. The deadly blaze was a catalyst for clashes and protests across the country that took aim at China’s draconian Covid laws.
In a sign Xi Jinping’s signature zero Covid policy may be crumbling, quarantine and testing requirements will be eased in some cities.
Several cities, including Shanghai and Guangzhou, have gradually started to relax district lockdowns - allowing businesses to reopen, exemptions from daily tests, and some infected people, including pregnant mothers, to quarantine at home.
Home isolation for the infected is a significant change to China’s Covid rules. Earlier this year, entire communities were locked down for weeks at a time, sometimes after just a single positive test result.
The authorities will also launch a new drive to improve accessibility to vaccines and encourage the elderly and vulnerable to take the jab through targeted programmes in nursing homes and leisure facilities.
Protesters believe long-running Covid restrictions, which have not prevented national cases from rising, contributed to the deaths, which included multiple children.
The authorities have denied this, but Sun Chunlan, the Chinese vice-premier, signalled that the government may be caving to pressure - announcing on Wednesday that a “new situation” required “new tasks”.
Ms Sun, a central figure in overseeing the pandemic response, told the National Health Commission that the omicron variant's ability to cause disease was weakening.
"The country is facing a new situation and new tasks in epidemic prevention and control as the pathogenicity of the omicron virus weakens, more people are vaccinated and experience in containing the virus is accumulated," she said, according to a Reuters report.
She made no mention of the zero Covid policy in her latest remarks, suggesting a path may be opening up out of a strict approach to pandemic prevention that has disrupted the economy and daily life.
The message was backed up by state media including Global Times, which published an exclusive stating that Chinese researchers had proven that the omicron variant was less dangerous than earlier Covid strains.
Hu Xijin, the former Global Times editor, and who remains a high-profile pro-Communist party commentator on social media, tweeted:
As well as alleviating public fears about the danger posed by the virus, the authorities will have to contend with widespread hesitancy among key groups being targeted as part of the vaccination drive.
"Concerns about safety and the lack of effectiveness probably are the major reasons why older adults refuse or delay vaccination," Florence Zhang, a researcher at the School of Medicine at China's Jinan University, who has conducted studies into vaccine hesitancy among China's elderly, told AFP.
In the capital Beijing, several districts announced that people who stay at home and do not need to go to public places can opt out of daily nucleic acid tests. It was also announced that multiple shopping centres would open their doors again.
In the southern manufacturing hub of Guangzhou - the site of dramatic clashes between police and protesters on Tuesday – lockdowns were also eased, as was daily mass testing for those who do not need to leave home frequently, including the elderly and infants.
However, reported attempts to trial herd immunity were met with unease.
A leaked audio recording of an epidemic prevention meeting at a school in Shifang, Sichuan province, revealed it had been ordered by the central government to carry out a herd immunity experiment on pupils - drawing criticism online. The recording could not be independently verified.