China on Tuesday said it will take steps to “minimise” the impact of its draconian coronavirus lockdowns, amidst the unprecedented public protests against President Xi Jinping's stringent zero-COVID policy that evoked strong support from the UN, the US and other nations.
The anti-zero COVID protests in the last few days in several Chinese cities, including Shanghai and Beijing, which turned political with calls for Xi to step down showed signs of abetment with no demonstrations reported as the police stepped up crackdown with visits to homes of protestors in different places.
Seeking to address international concerns, foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said China has been adjusting the zero-COVID policy based on the changing circumstances.
“We will keep improving science-based maximum protection to people's lives and health and minimise the COVID impact on social economic development,” he said at a press conference.
China will effectively control COVID and ensure stable economic performance, he said.
China maintains a strict zero-COVID policy under which local authorities clamp down on even small outbreaks with mass testing, quarantines and snap lockdowns.
Senior health officials have admitted that people were angry with the “overzealous” implementation of the zero-COVID policy following an approach of one-size-fits-all.
"The problems highlighted by the public are not aimed at the epidemic prevention and control itself, but focus on simplifying prevention and control measures,” Cheng Youquan, a supervisory official of the national disease control and prevention administration, told a press briefing here on Tuesday.
To a question whether authorities would reconsider the zero-COVID policy following the protests, national health commission spokesperson Mi Feng said efforts would continue to fine-tune policy to reduce its impact on society and the economy.
China has moved quickly to suppress demonstrations that erupted in key cities against the zero-COVID policy, deploying police forces at key protest sites and tightening online censorship.
The places where the anti-government protests have taken place have been sealed with barricades.
Also, several universities and colleges, including the prestigious Tsinghua University, where hundreds of students held blank paper protests -- an act which has become a symbol of defiance against Chinese censorship -- were advised to go to their hometowns.
With memories of 1989 Tiananmen Square student protests, which shook the ruling Communist Party rule, in mind, the government is cautious to ensure that the campuses are emptied before they escalate.
Thousands of students demanding democracy and freedom in the Communist nation were killed during the Tiananmen protest.
The scale of the rare spontaneous weekend protest in Shanghai, Beijing, Chengdu, Wuhan and several other places caught the Communist Party and the police by surprise.
The police crackdown on the protestors and the foreign media, including the detention and manhandling of a BBC journalist in Shanghai, drew global criticism.
The United Nations called on China to respect the right to peaceful protest.
UN Human Rights office spokesman Jeremy Laurence told the media that people should not be detained for simply protesting.
"We call on the authorities to respond to protests in line with international human rights laws and standards. No one should be arbitrarily detained for peacefully expressing their opinions," he said.
White House's National Security Council coordinator for Strategic Communications John Kirby said the US is closely watching the developments in China.
"Our message to peaceful protesters around the world is the same and consistent: People should be allowed the right to assemble and to peacefully protest policies or laws or dictates that they take issue with," Kirby said in Washington.
"We're watching this closely, as you might expect we would. And again, we continue to stand up and support the right of peaceful protest. And I think we're going to watch this closely, and we'll see where things go," he said.
In London, UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak during an interaction with business leaders and foreign policy experts said that in the face of the protests, China had "chosen to crack down further, including by assaulting a BBC journalist".
"We recognise China poses a systemic challenge to our values and interests, a challenge that grows more acute as it moves towards even greater authoritarianism," he said.
Asked for his reaction to global concerns and condemnation, Zhao said China is a country based on rule of law.
“People's legitimate rights are protected by the law. At the same time, all kinds of freedoms must be exercised under the framework of the law,” the foreign ministry spokesperson said.
The official media, which blocked the coverage of the protests, also dropped hints of relaxation of the draconian measures.
“Protests took place in many places in China over the past weekend. With the relaxation of the epidemic prevention and control measures, public sentiment will soon calm down. I can give an absolute prediction: China will not become chaotic or out of control,” tweeted Hu Xijin, former Editor of the state-run Global Times.
“Most Chinese people are no longer afraid of being infected. China may walk out of the shadow of COVID-19 sooner than expected,” Hu wrote in a column in the Communist Party-run daily.
Several Chinese cities further refine measures of mass COVID testing, a report in the Global Times said.
Several Chinese cities, including Beijing, Guangzhou, Chongqing and Zhengzhou, have further optimised their anti-COVID-19 measures with some places allowing residents without social activities to be free from mass testing. It is a move to take more targeted, science-based actions to curb flare-ups, the newspaper said.
Meanwhile, China continues to report a high number of COVID cases.
The national health commission on Tuesday said 38,421 coronavirus cases were reported from across the country.
The new cases include 5,375 infections recorded in Beijing where several apartment buildings were kept under lockdown.
The COVID-19 pandemic, which broke out in the central Chinese city of Wuhan in late 2019, has so far killed more than 6,631,000 people across the world, according to Johns Hopkins University.
The world has also seen more than 641,655,000 cases of COVID-19.