Officials in the southern city announce the lifting of harsh COVID restrictions after protests against ‘zero-COVID’ policy.
Authorities in the Chinese city of Guangzhou have eased COVID restrictions a day after demonstrators in the southern city clashed with police amid a string of protests against Beijing’s strict measures to control the coronavirus pandemic.
China has imposed widespread lockdowns and travel restrictions, and conducted mass testing as part of its “zero-COVID” policy that has been generating rising anger. COVID restrictions have been eased in most parts of the world.
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The demonstrations, which spread over the weekend to Shanghai, Beijing and elsewhere, have become a show of public defiance unprecedented since President Xi Jinping came to power in 2012.
The southwestern city of Chongqing will allow the close-contacts of people with COVID-19, who fulfil certain conditions, to quarantine at home, a city official said on Wednesday.
But with record numbers of cases nationwide, there seems little prospect of a major U-turn in the “zero-COVID” policy that President Xi has said has saved lives.
Al Jazeera’s Patrick Fok, reporting from Hong Kong, said that protests have taken a violent turn in Guangzhou, which has been hard-hit by the recent wave of infections.
“The unrest marks the escalation of a movement that spread to several large cities,” Fok said.
“The latest developments come despite stern warnings against taking part in demonstrations,” he said, adding that China’s top security agency called for a crackdown on what it says are “hostile forces”.
However, it is unclear who or what the government is referring to, Fok said, and it is yet to provide evidence of any external interference.
Some protesters and foreign security experts believed Wednesday’s death of former President Jiang Zemin, who led the country for a decade of rapid economic growth after the Tiananmen crackdown in 1989, might become a new rallying point for protests after three years of the pandemic.
Jiang’s legacy was being debated on protesters’ Telegram groups, with some saying it gave them a legitimate reason to gather.
‘Sign of weakness’
China Dissent Monitor, run by the US government-funded Freedom House, estimated at least 27 demonstrations took place across China from Saturday to Monday. Australia’s ASPI think-tank estimated 43 protests in 22 cities.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Wednesday that people in every country should be able to “make known their frustration” through peaceful protests.
“In any country where we see that happening and then we see the government take massive repressive action to stop it, that’s not a sign of strength, that’s a sign of weakness,” Blinken said.
As well as the easing of curbs in Guangzhou and Chongqing, officials in Zhengzhou, the site of a big Foxconn factory making Apple iPhones that has been the scene of worker unrest over COVID, announced the “orderly” resumption of businesses, including supermarkets, gyms and restaurants.
Earlier, national health officials said China would respond to “urgent concerns” raised by the public and that COVID rules should be implemented more flexibly.
COVID has spread despite China largely isolating itself from the world and demanding sacrifices from hundreds of millions to comply with relentless testing and isolation.
While infections and death numbers are low by global standards, analysts said that a re-opening before increasing vaccination rates could lead to widespread illness and deaths.
The lockdowns have hammered the economy, disrupting global supply chains and roiling financial markets.
Data on Wednesday showed China’s manufacturing and services activity for November posting the lowest readings since Shanghai’s two-month lockdown began in April.