China protests: Guangzhou eases lockdown as Covid cases rise

Timing of measure seen as an indication of a broader change in policy direction

Guangzhou has partially lifted a weeks-long lockdown, a departure from the strict enforcement of China’s strict zero-Covid policy despite the city of 18 million people suffering its worst Covid-19 outbreak since the pandemic erupted.

Officials in the southern manufacturing hub on Wednesday eased restrictions on movement over about half of the city’s 11 districts, including Haizhu, where migrant workers have clashed with police over the past month.

The easing of restrictions came a day after Beijing blamed local governments for their handling of outbreaks that sparked protests across more than 20 cities.

“People on the street are saying we’re free,” William Zi, a resident of Haizhu, said. “I don’t know if it’s the end of the pandemic – it’s been 20 days at home so we’re free now at least.”


Local officials’ announcement to ease lockdowns followed direct approval from Beijing, two people familiar with the decision said. The timing of the measures, coming despite nearly 7,000 new cases being reported on Wednesday, was seen as an indication of a broader change in policy direction.

“I think they are doing a trial here in Guangzhou to see whether it works ... whether even if they do less mass testing and don’t execute the really stringent lockdowns, whether Covid could still be put under control,” said Jin Dong-yan, a virologist at the University of Hong Kong.

“If it works they might do the same in other Chinese cities.”

The easing drove stocks higher in Hong Kong as investors hoped for a path out of Xi Jinping’s zero-Covid policy that has hammered sentiment in the world’s second-biggest economy.

Earlier on Wednesday, the US envoy to China urged Xi Jinping’s administration not to interfere with peaceful demonstrations just as a Communist party security chief warned against “hostile” forces.

China has been shaken by vigils for a deadly apartment fire in Urumqi, Xinjiang that was partly blamed on coronavirus restrictions, which evolved into demonstrations against Xi’s zero-Covid policy and state censorship.

“We believe that Chinese people have a right to protest peacefully, they have a right to make their views known, they have a right to be heard,” Ambassador Nicholas Burns said during a video call from Beijing with the Chicago Council on Global Affairs on Wednesday.

“That’s a fundamental right around the world – it should be – and that right should not be hindered with, and it shouldn’t be interfered with,” he said.

Chinese officials have barely referred to the protests, most of which appeared to have been stamped out by Monday.

However, in a speech reported by state media on Tuesday evening, Chen Wenqing, head of the Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission, said the government had to resolve disputes “in a timely manner” while maintaining order.

“[We] must resolutely crack down on the infiltration and sabotage activities of hostile forces as well as illegal and criminal activities that disturb social order,” the official Xinhua news agency quoted Chen as saying. “Social stability must be ensured.”

Since the Urumqi fire last week, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute has tracked more than 40 public protests across 22 Chinese cities, including four on Monday.

Experts have warned of brutal reprisals for an unknown number of people detained over the weekend in cities such as Beijing, Shanghai, Wuhan and Chengdu. China’s criminal conviction rate is 99 per cent, and the state is notorious for quashing dissent.

Burns noted a “very heavy security presence here in Beijing and in the major cities of China”.

The pandemic, Burns added, had “really shut down normal life” and had curtailed normal diplomatic activity, including visits to check on the health and rights of Americans detained in the country.

“We have quite a number of Americans in prisons in China ... we haven’t been able to get into see most of the American prisoners here for the last three years,” he said.

There were more mixed signals on Wednesday, as while lockdowns eased in some areas, local officials in others tightened restrictions in response to the wave of Covid infections.

In Zhengzhou, the central city where the world’s biggest iPhone factory is located, officials lifted citywide lockdowns before adding new restrictions across dozens of “high-risk” areas a few hours later.

Meanwhile, state-affiliated media in Beijing published in-depth accounts of people’s experiences of Covid infection, a fledgling step toward normalising the virus after three years of focusing on its dangers.

Officials also warned that the healthcare system was straining amid the surge in cases, with the capital’s centralised quarantine capacity three-quarters full.

China reported 36,683 new locally transmitted cases on Wednesday, down slightly from the previous day’s total but well above peak daily caseloads reported during a big outbreak in April. The highest caseloads were reported in Chongqing and Guangdong province, with about 8,000 new cases each.

Additional reporting by William Langley, Ryan McMorrow and Hudson Lockett

– Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2022