BEIJING -- In a move that caught many by surprise, China announced a potentially major easing of its rigid “zero-COVID” restrictions, without formally abandoning the policy altogether.
It’s not clear what exactly prompted the move, although it follows the largest show of public dissent against the ruling Communist Party in more than 30 years by residents fed up with constant testing, quarantines, travel restrictions, rolling lockdowns and business closures.
Here's a look at the changes known as the “New Ten Requirements" announced on Wednesday.
WHAT ARE THE BIGGEST CHANGES?
Among the most significant changes is one that allows people who test positive for COVID-19 but show no or only mild symptoms to recuperate at home rather than being forced into one of the government field hospitals that have become notorious for overcrowding, lights that stay on 24 hours and poor food and hygiene.
Where cases are discovered, lockdowns will be limited to specific apartment floors or buildings. Before, such lockdowns would encompass entire communities, districts and even cities. Widespread lockdowns were a significant factor behind protests in the spring in Shanghai and other cities.
Authorities have reduced the requirement to produce a “health code” on a smartphone app that tracks virus testing and the user's proximity to areas deemed at high risk of infection and shows test results.
Health codes will still be required for “special places,” including schools, hospitals and nursing homes. That leaves considerable ambiguity. Restaurants in Shanghai and Beijing were still requiring a negative test within the last 48 hours for indoor dining Thursday.
One problem with the change: Centers that provided immediate, free PCR testing with results available overnight are becoming harder and harder to find.
WHAT ELSE CHANGED?
Other relaxations are more subtle but still significant, like the length of lockdowns, which can only last five days if no new cases are detected. That's a major change from the open-ended lockdowns that could drag on for weeks and leave residents with no information or ability to plan ahead.
Restrictions on the sale of cold and cough medicine are also being lifted. During the height of the pandemic, such over-the-counter medications could only be purchased through a lengthy application process. While never clearly explained, the rules were thought to be aimed at those trying to cover up COVID-19 symptoms to avoid being tested and sent to quarantine. Just visiting a pharmacy risked triggering the health code smartphone app, resulting in a visit from hazmat-attired health authorities and police.
More emphasis is also being placed on providing the elderly with vaccines and booster shots, and a greater focus will be placed on members of the population who suffer from cardiovascular diseases, diabetes and other underlying factors that can increase vulnerability to COVID-19.
Local governments are also barred from suspending business and public transportation in areas not considered at risk. They are also forbidden from blocking fire exits — an apparent reference to the apartment fire in the western city of Urumqi last month that helped set off the street protests. In theory, that would prevent some of the more extreme measures taken to block people into their homes, like locking their doors from the outside, welding steel bars across passages and fencing in entire communities.
Schools without cases will be required to return to in-person classes, and emergency patients who do not have a recent negative test can no longer be barred from hospitals.
WHAT'S THE EFFECT ON CHINA'S SOCIETY, ECONOMY, POLITICS?
The new measures will likely take some time to be implemented and leave considerable wiggle room to keep some restrictions in place. Communities whose health care resources are barely adequate at the best of times will likely be the last to drop what they see as the last line of defense against potentially overwhelming outbreaks.
In the cities, the effect appears to have been more immediate. Subways and busses in Beijing, Shanghai and other major cities are packed with commuters returning to the office.
But the new requirements don't address is international travel. China's borders remain largely closed while the rest of the world opens up, although it did reduce the quarantine time for international arrivals from seven to five days at a designated location, followed by three days of isolation at their place of residence.
Politically, the easing of regulations may take some pressure off the regime of President Xi Jinping, who is considered China's most authoritarian leader since Mao Zedong and recently awarded himself a third five-year term in power. Xi faces no term limits and has packed the top party ranks with loyalists, but the street protests were a reminder of the limits of public patience.
“Zero-COVID” has been touted as Xi's success, and the party is averse to backtracking or admitting mistakes, so some have put forward the notion that China will gradually adopt an approach of “zero-COVID in name only." That would give China the authority to reimpose controls as it sees fit and punish opponents and critics from among the general public, intellectuals, the business community and even athletes.
In an editorial on the latest regulations — the ninth set released by China since the Pandemic began in late 2019 — the Communist Party newspaper Global Times struck a victorious tone and conceded no errors or overreach.
“We can say that we have come through the most difficult times," the paper said. “Nearly three years of an exceptionally difficult ‘national fight against the epidemic,' countless people have made sacrifices, endured hardships and paid an effort to win this battle."