The Irish Times view on Covid protests in China

Chinese policies on controlling Covid-19 have kept down deaths, but now look like they are losing wider public support

Last weekend’s protests in China were unique in recent decades insofar as they took place across the country at the same time and were focused on a single issue. The trigger was a fire in a high-rise building in Xinjiang that killed 10 people last Thursday night amid reports that firefighters were unable to rescue victims because of lockdown restrictions.

The protests reflected a broader frustration over China’s zero-Covid policy which has seen lockdowns this month in many cities, including Beijing. Three years after the start of the pandemic, China is the only country in the world to persist in attempting to control the coronavirus through mass testing, contact tracing and isolation.

The policy has been remarkably successful in keeping Covid-related deaths to just over 5,000 in a population of 1.4 billion and total infections to 1.5 million. While the figures may not be directly comparable, if Ireland had a similar death rate to China’s, fewer than 20 people would have died with Covid, as opposed to more than 8,000.

But China’s policy has come at a huge social and economic cost, with growth slowing, youth unemployment rising close to 20 per cent and thousands of businesses going bust. And the authorities have been too slow to take the steps necessary for an orderly exit from zero-Covid, such as improving vaccination rates among the over-80s and making the healthcare system more resilient.


Last weekend saw people rebel within their neighbourhoods against over-zealous application of lockdown rules as well as bigger protests on the streets of some major cities. The authorities deterred further protests with big police deployments in cities and increased checks on the public. But the zero-Covid policy is unsustainable without popular support and the broad-based nature of last weekend’s protests suggests that the public’s patience is being tested to the limit.

The Chinese Communist Party has long depended for its legitimacy on the results its policies have produced. The Covid policy has saved millions of Chinese people from death. Now their government must allow them to live.