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Beijing Blinks? Is The CCP Actually Backing Down After The Zero COVID Protests?
The Short Answer: No
With the lack of irony only accessible to true authoritarians, the Chinese Communist Party appears to be embracing a divergent narrative over the Zero COVID protests that have been roiling China.
In the first part of the narrative, Beijing is continuing to crack down on and suppress the protests themselves. Challenges to the authority and “rightness” of the CCP are not going to be tolerated.
At the same time, the CCP is “discovering” that the latest strain of SARS-CoV-2 to sweep across China is less deadly and less severe, and so some of the Zero COVID policies can be diluted.
But while authorities have called for a “crackdown” in the wake of the demonstrations, they have also begun hinting that a relaxation of the hardline virus strategy could be in the works.
Speaking at the National Health Commission Wednesday, Vice Premier Sun Chunlan said the Omicron variant was weakening and vaccination rates were improving, according to the state-run Xinhua news agency.
Sun — a central figure behind Beijing’s pandemic response — said this “new situation” required “new tasks”.
It is still not entirely certain what the “new tasks” will be. For now, the “old tasks” of Zero COVID remain very much in effect.
While the “new situation” enjoys the most convenient of timing for the CCP, the “old tasks” of Zero COVID have once again failed to produce the desired results of containment and eradication. Instead, Zero COVID has once again produced record COVID cases, even as it unleashed historic protests against the CCP.
Few government policies on COVID have failed as spectacularly as China’s Zero COVID policy.
To “fix” the policy, Beijing is preparing to loosen some of the rules of Zero COVID, although to loosen the rules should not be taken to mean eliminating the rules.
The measures due to be unveiled include a reduction in the use of mass testing and regular nucleic acid tests as well as moves to allow positive cases and close contacts to isolate at home under certain conditions, the sources familiar with the matter said.
The quarantine rule changes are not universal, however, as a number of patient demographics will not be allowed to quarantine from home.
Not all positive cases will be allowed to quarantine at home unconditionally, one of the sources told Reuters on Thursday, adding that pregnant women, the elderly and people with underlying illnesses will qualify to isolate at home.
Similarly, home isolation for close contacts will be allowed for some but not all individuals associated with those testing positive for COVID.
At the same time, antigen testing is set to replace nucleic acid tests in many situations, with mass testing itself being reduced.
However, the testing regime itself is not being eliminated.
The shift to antigen testing may also be a response to concerns that have leaked out over the accuracy and integrity of the nucleic acid tests. Social media chatter about test integrity has grown significantly since the brief appearance in The People’s Daily of an op-ed challenging the tests.
Trending on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, on Tuesday morning was the hashtag: “If virus testing chaos never stops, the pandemic may never end,” according to CNBC’s translation of the Chinese.
The hashtag was referring to the headline of a now-deleted opinion piece from a publication overseen by People’s Daily, the Chinese Communist Party’s newspaper. The article listed several instances of allegedly forged virus test results this year across the country, including in Shanghai and Beijing.
The article warned that false reporting of nucleic acid test results could end up spreading the virus further, lead to even more rounds of testing — and lockdowns for months on end.
With trust in the nucleic acid tests taking a beating online, a shift to antigen testing becomes less a loosening of Zero COVID restrictions and more a reaction to revelations of test fraud and error.
Still, the timing of the changes in Zero COVID are nothing if not convenient for the CCP, given the widespread protests over the Zero COVID policy.
While Beijing is certainly appears to be making accommodating gestures to the protesters, it is still employing all its tools of repression to squelch the protests and prevent new ones from arising.
A leaked document purportedly drafted by a government official outlined specific dates on which local authorities should take extra precautions, including the upcoming International Anti-Corruption Day (December 9) and International Human Rights Day (December 10) as time periods that would be likely to attract even greater protests.
The other two dates mentioned by the administration were December 9 and December 10, which are International Anti-Corruption Day and International Human Rights Day, respectively.
"Pay careful attention to these and other sensitive dates, maintain strict controls, and strengthen preliminary content audits," the leaked document read. "Promptly identify and report content aimed at stirring up public sentiment or any such similarly 'targeted' content."
The document, whose authenticity cannot be confirmed, also called for Beijing to “focus on public opinon” while adapting Zero COVID. Political gatherings, particularly at major universities, are deemed a problem and should be monitored with extra care and thoroughness.
In a subtle reminder of China’s vast Orwellian surveillance systems, officials are warning people to take care what they say on Chinese social media.
One leaked, translated message reportedly resonating from a local government text message chain involving a 129-member group called "District Propaganda Department Working Group" warned against a visceral response.
"The city requests that all counties and districts refrain from unnecessary propaganda about the trials and tribulations of frontline pandemic prevention and control work," read the message leaked as a screenshot. "Exercise extreme caution when publicizing 'model deeds' on the frontline, particularly if this includes images or video.
The first rule of Zero COVID: don’t talk about Zero COVID.
Ultimately, what the media is describing as a loosening of restrictions is still merely marginal changes at best to the Zero COVID policy, while the surveillance, arrests, and social media monitoring are China’s time-tested tools of official repression and censorship.
Despite the increased use of home isolation and quarantine for those testing positive, Zero COVID still makes isolation and quarantine mandatory. While the frequency of testing may be reduced, the consequences of a positive test have not been altered much at all.
Nor should we forget that the people who died in the apartment fire in Urumqi last month were technically under home isolation. Replacing home isolation with detention in a quarantine facility does not remove the restriction, but merely seeks to place a velvet sheath around the iron chain.
Beijing is attempting to mollify the protesters somewhat with what are ultimately superficial and even cosmetic changes to the Zero COVID policy, but the core restrictions of the policy remain very much in effect. In that regard, there has been no change at all, nor is there any substantial indication of any change pending.
Despite the favorable coverage the policy modifications are receiving, substantially there has been zero change to Zero COVID, and Beijing is showing zero tolerance to any protests over Zero COVID.
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