Chinese cities ease Covid restrictions following nationwide protests

Chinese cities accelerated the easing of zero-Covid restrictions over the weekend, building expectations that Beijing could abandon pandemic policies that have kept the country isolated for nearly three years and hurt the economy.

Some Chinese cities have eased controls, even as Covid continues to circulate. China reported 31,824 infections on Sunday for tests done the previous day, down slightly from Saturday as testing requirements were eased.

Shenzhen has removed the requirement for passengers to present PCR test results to travel on public transport, following similar moves by Tianjin, Chengdu and Chongqing. Several apartment complexes in Beijing indicated to residents over the weekend that if they test positive they can quarantine at home rather than in a central quarantine facility, marking a significant relaxation of the curb.

China’s top leadership body, the Politburo Standing Committee, has not issued an official statement on its position on easing restrictions. Even so, President Xi Jinping appears to be leading the policy shift, according to people familiar with the matter.

During a closed-door meeting with European officials on Thursday, Xi acknowledged the protests that rocked cities across the country last weekend, according to two European officials with knowledge of the talks.

Xi told European Council President Charles Michel, the first Western leader to visit China since the protests broke out, that “frustrated” students were driving the protests after three years of zero Covid. The content of the meeting between Xi and Michel was first reported by the South China Morning Post.

Growing anger over China’s zero-covid restrictions spilled over into a nationwide wave of discontent last weekend, as residents in cities including Shanghai and Wuhan took to the streets. A fire in Urumqi, in which 10 people died, became the focus of widespread anger at the policy’s human cost.

The Chinese leader added that the Omicron strain currently driving the nationwide outbreak is less lethal than previous versions, but officials are concerned about low vaccination rates among the elderly. Beijing is now belatedly trying to restart its stalled vaccination campaign.

Only about 40% of people 80 and older received three shots, the dose required for the Chinese Sinopharm and Sinovac vaccines to achieve high levels of protection against Omicron.

Authorities in Beijing have taken a more conservative approach than other cities. Most restaurants and bars are closed, and the 48-hour screening requirement for workers entering office buildings remains in place.

Economists warn that China’s economy will not experience a quick recovery even if officials speed up steps to open the country. Alicia Garcia-Herrero, Asia Pacific chief economist at research firm Natixis, said that “China is expected to grow at barely half of what the government has promised for 2022,” pointing to the growth target of 5.5% of GDP.

She said the “factors behind China’s structural slowdown remain intact,” including a property crisis, an aging population and declining productivity, which will continue to weigh on the country’s economic outlook even if restrictions are lifted.

Additional reporting by Ryan McMurrow in Beijing

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