China should heed people’s demand to review rigid zero-COVID policy

It is obvious that the Chinese public is crying out that they can no longer tolerate the strict and rigid zero-COVID policy. The administration of Chinese President Xi Jinping should try to change its course.

Protests have spread throughout the country against the policy of thoroughly containing the spread of the coronavirus through restrictions on going out, locking down buildings, frequent testing and quarantine.

In Shanghai, residents called out, “Communist Party, step down!” and “Xi Jinping, step down!” In Beijing, too, students and others at Tsinghua University, Xi’s alma mater, and elsewhere called for an end to the lockdown. There have also been acts of holding up blank sheets of white paper to call for an end to “non-freedom of speech.”

The protests, which go so far as to criticize the regime, are believed to be the first since the 1989 Tiananmen Square Incident, in which a pro-democracy movement led mainly by students was violently suppressed. This is an extremely unusual situation under the Xi administration, which has tightened censorship and other social controls and restricted the expression of the public’s opinions.

For more than 2½ years, China has continued its uniform zero-COVID policy, with entire residential areas locked down if even one person is infected with the virus. Public frustration has built up over the loss of freedom of movement, with people unable to even go shopping or take a walk.

These protests should be seen as stemming from anger at the lack of a humane life, rather than from any political motivation.

If the restrictions on activities are relaxed, the protests will no doubt subside. The reason Beijing cannot bring itself to do so may be that Xi has been using the zero-COVID strategy that aims to contain the infection to enhance his authority as a sign of his regime’s superiority over Western nations.

Continuing tight restrictions and a crackdown on protests could make things worse and destabilize society. Economic stagnation may also be inevitable. It is time for Xi to decide on a policy review.

China has a fragile medical care system in rural areas. The only vaccines that have made inroads in the country are China-made ones, which are believed to be less effective in preventing infections. The fact that the number of infected people has reached a record high since the beginning of this month illustrates the reality that the easing of restrictions and an explosion of infections go hand in hand.

Many countries around the world, including Japan, the United States and European nations, have adopted policies to balance restrictions according to the severity of the virus’ virulence and the status of infections, and the policies have been effective. This flexibility is what the Xi administration lacks.

Increasing the number of hospital beds for COVID-19 patients in rural areas is the first step toward ending the zero-COVID strategy. The introduction of Western-made vaccines would be an effective way to prevent an explosion of infections. It is hoped that Xi will look to cooperate with the international community.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, Nov. 30, 2022)