BEIJING (AP) — As China’s ruling Communist Party holds a congress this week, many Beijing residents are focused on an issue that’s not on the official agenda: The end of the meeting will bring- a relaxation of China’s sometimes draconian “zero-COVID” policies? that disrupt lives and the economy?
It seems like wishful thinking. As the world shifts to a post-pandemic lifestyle, many people across China have resigned themselves to queuing several times a week for COVID-19 testing, restrictions on their travel to other regions and the ever-present possibility of community lockdown.
“There is nothing we can do,” Zhang Yiming, 51, said in a Beijing park this week. “If we look at the situation overseas, like in the United States where over a million people have died, right? In China, while it is true that some aspects of our life are not convenient, such as travel and economy, there seems to be no good solution.
People are looking to the party convention, which ends on Saturday, for two reasons. The meeting, which is held every five years and sets the national agenda for the next five, can send signals of possible shifts in policy direction.
Second, authorities are always tightening controls – COVID-19 and the like – before and during a major event to try to eliminate disruptions or distractions, so they can loosen controls when the event is over.
However, any hope of easing seems to have been dashed before the congress. The Communist Party newspaper People’s Daily has published a series of opinion pieces on the effectiveness of China’s “zero-COVID” approach, and health officials said last week that China had to stick to it.
Chinese leader Xi Jinping hailed the policy at the opening ceremony of the congress. He said he had put people’s health and safety first and protected people’s health and safety and had made “a tremendous achievement in finding the balance between responding to the epidemic and economic and social development”.
After an initial outbreak in early 2020 that killed more than 4,000 people and overwhelmed hospitals and morgues, China has largely managed to tame the virus while other countries have been overwhelmed by it – a contrast trumpeted in propaganda of the Communist Party.
Then came omicron at the end of 2021. China had to apply increasingly widespread restrictions to control the faster-spreading variant, lock down entire cities and begin regular testing of virtually the entire population of 1.4 billion people.
The measures engendered latent discontent, fueled by cases of harsh enforcement which, in some cases, had tragic consequences.
During a two-month lockdown in Shanghai last spring, videos widely shared on social media showed officials breaking down apartment doors to drag reluctant residents to quarantine facilities. Children were also separated from their parents, as one or the other was infected.
Cases of hospitals refusing treatment due to pandemic rules have sparked outrage, including a woman in labor who lost her baby after she was barred from entering a hospital during a Xi’an city lockdown because she couldn’t show a negative COVID-19 test result.
While public demonstrations are relatively rare in China, some people have taken to the streets in Shanghai and the northeast city of Dandong to protest the severe and prolonged lockdowns.
Last week, three days before the opening of the congress, banners were thrown on an elevated roadway calling for the overthrow of Xi and an end to the “zero-COVID” policy. The incident spread to at least one other city, where photos shared on Twitter showed similar statements issued at a bus stop in Xi’an.
Andy Chen, senior analyst at Trivium China, a Beijing-based policy consultancy, said the restrictions beyond the party congress should come as no surprise.
“All the conditions that forced the government to implement zero-COVID haven’t really changed,” he said, pointing to the lack of an effective vaccine and the lack of strong home quarantine rules. .
Even though the vaccines are widely available, the Chinese versions don’t work as well as the Pfizer, Moderna and other vaccines developed elsewhere. China has also resisted vaccination mandates, limiting vaccination rates. By mid-October, 90% had received two injections, but only 57% had received a booster injection.
Beijing authorities doubled down on the coronavirus hardline policy during the congress.
Road checkpoints in the city are heavily guarded, with all participants having to show a “green” code on a mobile phone app to prove they have not traveled to medium or high risk areas.
Some express bus lines between Beijing and neighboring Tianjin and Hebei Province have been suspended since Oct. 12.
Anyone who has been to a city, county or neighborhood where only one coronavirus case has been discovered in seven days is banned from entering the Chinese capital.
Within the city, the daily life of the inhabitants is dictated by their health codes. They must use an app to scan the QR code of any facility they enter to view their status and log their whereabouts.
People are not allowed to enter office buildings, malls, restaurants and other public places without a code green and a negative coronavirus test result within 72 hours, and sometimes less. The policy means that most of Beijing’s more than 21 million people take a coronavirus test at least two to three times a week.
And there is always the risk of a sudden blockage. Officials in protective gear kept entrances to communities closed this week in Fengtai district, where five neighborhoods have been classified as high risk. Residents were not allowed to leave their compound and some shops were forced to close.
Although the party congress did not provide the watershed moment some were hoping for, it could turn out to be the moment when the government starts laying the groundwork for a long process of easing restrictions, Dr Yanzhong said. Huang, director of the Center for Global Health Studies at Seton Hall University and a public health expert in China.
Some factors suggest the government will be in no rush to open up, including broad acceptance of the policy among those who are embarrassed but have not experienced prolonged or repeated closures.
“The vast, vast majority of the population go on with their lives, unaffected, and that’s a much better policy to implement from a government perspective than, say, imposing a vaccination mandate on the population,” Chen said.
But Huang noted growing signs of social instability, especially among middle class and urban residents.
“I think the question is whether it’s reached a tipping point where people really find it’s not acceptable anymore,” he said. “We can no longer tolerate this. It remains to be seen even in the big cities, you know, how willing people are to tolerate drastic measures.
Ji reported from Bangkok. Associated Press video producers Olivia Zhang and Wayne Zhang contributed.
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