By Jesús Centeno
Beijing, Dec 9 (EFE).- China began rolling back this week its strict “zero Covid” strategy in the face of unprecedented protests against the draconian policy. The turnaround is underpinned by a sudden change of course in state propaganda, which is now downplaying the risk of the virus.
The change of direction started when the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party announced that nearly a year after the first cases of Omicron were reported, the country would “optimize” its pandemic measures after the variant was found to be less of a health risk.
Until just a few days ago, state media had staunchly supported the policy, with the newspaper Global Times citing Chinese epidemiologists claiming that Omicron had “an even higher mortality rate than the Delta variant” or that “the perception in the West that Omicron is little more than the flu is completely erroneous.”
In April, the newspaper stated that downplaying the risks of Omicron was an attempt to weaken support for the zero-Covid strategy among Chinese citizens, just before Shanghai imposed a three-month lockdown after an outbreak of the variant in the city.
Journalists from the country’s state media went from defending the policy — which included measures such as mass PCR testing, strict border controls, the isolation of positive cases and community lockdowns — to saying that the virus is “no longer so dangerous” and even urging people to expect to catch the virus.
Global Times former director Hu Xijin was among the prominent figures to take to Twitter – which is blocked in China – to say he was “mentally prepared to be infected with Covid-19 within a month.”
“Chinese medicine can stop symptoms from becoming too severe,” said news anchor Liu Xin, also on Twitter.
But in May she struck a different tone, pointedly asking if Washington had “lost the war against the virus”.
What has changed since? According to the financial holding Japanese company Nomura, the Chinese government reluctantly abandoned its strategy because “it simply does not work and is too costly.”
In May, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director general of the World Health Organization, said the policy was “not sustainable”, days after Chinese president Xi Jinping claimed that it would “stand the test of time”.
However, rather than admitting a mistake, the CCP has instead reprimanded local officials for implementing their restrictions or for not allowing asymptomatic cases people with only mild symptoms to isolate at home.
Another factor behind the change in discourse was the CCP’s annual 20th Congress in October, at which Xi secured an unprecedented third five-year term.
The economy, severely battered by the coronavirus restrictions, was also an important reason for the turnaround which came at a time when the leadership had just announced that it would prioritize growth over curbing the pandemic.
All of those reasons, as well as the population’s mounting weariness with the invasive restrictions on daily life, fueled the protests that were triggered by the deaths of ten people in a building reportedly under lockdown in the northwestern city of Urumqi.
“It is not merely an economic issue, the protests have had an effect. The Chinese government is aware of how fed up they are and this is one of the factors that are causing them to back down,” Mario Esteban, senior researcher at the Elcano Royal Institute, told Efe in an interview.
He explains that despite the policy of containing the virus and preventing numerous deaths in the first two years of the pandemic, its rigidity had important economic and social consequences.
“This policy has been draconian and that is why it is going to be made more flexible. We have to mitigate discontent,” said Esteban.
“But we may not see as drastic a change as we expect, it will all depend on the health situation. I would not take it for granted that the change is going to be abrupt and indefinite because the government is going to shape the situation in favor of its interests,” he concluded. EFE jco/aef/ks