China’s vice-premier signals shift in Covid stance as some lockdowns eased

<span>Photograph: Noel Celis/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Noel Celis/AFP/Getty Images

One of China’s most senior pandemic response officials has said the country is entering a “new stage and mission”, in the latest indication of the government’s changing approach after mass protests against its zero-Covid policy.

Sun Chunlan, China’s vice-premier, made the comments to national health officials on Wednesday, according to the Xinhau state media outlet. It came as several regions, including Shanghai, began to lift lockdowns despite continuing high case numbers.

Sun Chunlan.
Sun Chunlan. Photograph: Wu Hao/EPA

“With the decreasing pathogenicity of the Omicron variant, the increasing vaccination rate and the accumulating experience of outbreak control and prevention, China’s pandemic containment faces a new stage and mission,” Sun reportedly said.

Sun was attending a roundtable meeting of health experts, who Xinhua said praised China’s efforts before offering suggestions on “improving” current measures. Sun said China was taking a more “humane approach” with its outbreak responses. Like the health officials who addressed the country on Tuesday, she did not refer to the “dynamic zero-Covid” policy by name, but instead emphasised vaccinations and other measures.

Only in recent days have Chinese officials begun to emphasise the lower severity of the Omicron variant of Covid-19. State media has also begun to publish reassurances that the public should not panic over Omicron. The shift in tone comes alongside a new vaccination drive aimed at elderly people announced on Tuesday. More than 90% of China’s population has received at least two doses of a vaccine, but the rate drops sharply among elderly demographics, especially those over 80.

Related: ‘People want to live’: views from China on the Covid lockdown protests

In a further potential loosening of restrictions, China may soon allow some people who test positive for Covid to quarantine at home, Reuters reported on Thursday. Not all positive cases will be allowed to quarantine at home unconditionally, but pregnant women, elderly people and those with underlying illnesses will qualify to isolate at home, the news agency said, citing unnamed sources. Close contacts of the cases will also be allowed to isolate at home if their home environment meets certain conditions, Reuters said. Authorities will also increase antigen tests for the new variant and reduce the frequency of mass testing and regular nucleic acid tests, the report said.

China reported 36,061 Covid cases on Wednesday, a slight drop on Tuesday’s 37,828.

On Thursday, 24 districts in Shanghai designated as “high risk” were released from lockdown measures, state media said. It followed the easing of lockdowns across 11 districts in Guangzhou on Wednesday, despite both cities reporting rising cases. The lifting of lockdowns suggested an easing of the stringent measures that protesters had rallied against. However, while it may be a sign that grievances have been heard, authorities are showing no tolerance for protests and are continuing to track down and sometimes detain people who demonstrated.

Zhengzhou, where employees at an Apple-supplier factory staged extraordinary walkouts to escape Covid restrictions in recent weeks, has also eased the rules. And state media reported Chongqing will begin to lift lockdowns.

Hu Xijin, the former editor of the nationalistic state media tabloid the Global Times, and who remains a public commenter, tweeted on Thursday: “China is speeding up to cast aside large-scale lockdowns.”

Analysts have said the changes are a sign the government is listening to protesters, even if it is not publicly acknowledging them and is pursuing those who attended protests.

The past week included several days of protests at a scale not seen in China for decades, as mounting frustrations with the zero-Covid policy coalesced into anger and grief after the deaths of 10 people in a building fire in Urumqi, Xinjiang.

China remains the last major country still committed to a Covid elimination strategy. Early on in the pandemic it kept the virus largely at bay and the death toll minimal compared with other countries. However, the emergence of more transmissible variants has challenged and at times overwhelmed the system, resulting in frequent and sudden lockdowns, travel restrictions and associated deprivations, including food shortages, secondary deaths and economic damage.

At some rallies there were shouted demands for democracy and the rule of law, and – in Shanghai – for the Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, to step down. Observers say it is likely that those who protested against Xi and the government will face harsh punishment.

The protests have also coincided with the death of the former Chinese leader Jiang Zemin. The 96-year-old, who was elevated to the head of the Communist party during the Tiananmen protests and then presided over years of economic expansion, died on Wednesday, state media said. The timing has put observers on alert – there is a tradition in China of people using public mourning events for past leaders to express discontent with the existing regime.

China’s changing approach to Covid came as Xi met the European Council president, Charles Michel, in Beijing. Michel, who chairs meetings of the EU’s 27 national leaders, said the pair had talked for three hours, discussing the war in Ukraine, the EU-China relationship, the climate crisis and coronavirus.

Michel told reporters he had raised China’s Covid measures: “On the protests, yes, we discussed that question as well and the acceptance by the societies of measures that are taken and the reaction by the authorities.” He did not give details of Xi’s response.

Michel said he had stressed that European companies were willing to provide vaccines to China if they were approved by Chinese authorities. He had also explained how Europe had developing vaccines as a way out of lockdowns, he said.

The German chancellor, Olaf Scholz, met Xi in Beijing last month, where he also extolled Europe’s experience of using mRNA vaccines, such as the Pfizer/BioNTech jab. Michel was the first head of an EU institution to hold a face-to-face meeting with China’s top leader since the start of the pandemic.

Additional reporting by Jennifer Rankin in Brussels