Chinese cities ease Covid curbs in wake of protests

Chinese cities, including the financial hub of Shanghai and Urumqi in the far west, have announced an easing of coronavirus curbs after unprecedented protests against zero-Covid restrictions last weekend.

Urumqi, the capital of the Xinjiang region and centre of the first protests, will reopen malls, markets, restaurants and other venues from Monday, authorities said, ending months-long strict lockdowns.

There was no sign of any significant unrest this weekend, although police were out in force in the Liangmaqiao area of Beijing and in Shanghai around Wulumuqi Road, which is named after Urumqi. Protests took place at both sites a week ago.

A police officer confronts an anti-lockdown protester in Shanghai last week. Photograph: AP

A deadly fire last month in Urumqi sparked protests in more than 20 cities, after claims on social media that victims had been unable to escape the blaze because their apartment building was locked down.

The Chinese vice-premier, Sun Chunlan, who oversees Covid policy, said last week that the ability of the virus to cause disease was weakening – a change in messaging that appears to have allowed steps to ease restrictions in some cities.

People in Zhengzhou, the central city and home to the world’s largest iPhone plant, which last month was rocked by violent unrest, will no longer have to show test results to take public transport or taxis or to visit “public areas”, authorities said on Sunday. Karaoke bars, beauty salons, internet cafes and other indoor venues can reopen but must check customers for a negative 48-hour test result.

In Shanghai from Monday, a negative test will no longer be required to take public transport and visit parks, authorities announced on Sunday. Elsewhere, Nanning, the capital of the southern region of Guangxi, and Wuhan, the central city where the pandemic began in 2019, on Sunday cancelled a requirement for a negative test to take the subway.

Some inconsistencies as the restrictions are eased have angered people, including a requirement in some places for a negative Covid test even though mass testing centres were closing.

In Beijing and Wuhan, that caused lengthy queues at the few remaining testing booths. “Are they stupid or just plain mean?” one person asked on social media. “We shouldn’t shut down Covid testing stations until we get rid of the Covid test pass.”

Daily case numbers dropped nationwide to 31,824, authorities said on Sunday, which may be due in part to fewer people being tested. Authorities also reported two new Covid deaths.

Despite the easing of restrictions, many experts said China was unlikely to begin significant reopening before March at the earliest, given the need to ramp up vaccinations, especially among its vast elderly population.

“Although there have been quite a few local changes to Covid policies lately, we do not interpret them as China abandoning zero-Covid policy just yet,” Goldman Sachs said in a note on Sunday.

Estimates for how many deaths there could be in China if it pivots to a full reopening have ranged from 1.3 million to more than 2 million, though some researchers said the toll could be reduced sharply if vaccination is stepped up.

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