When unprecedented protests against China’s zero-Covid policies flared up in November, Li Qiang, who had recently risen to No. 2 on the ruling Communist Party’s Politburo Standing Committee, seized the moment.
Top Chinese officials and medical experts are planning to end President Xi Jinping’s zero-COVID strategy and gradually reopen the country by the end of 2022, aiming to announce a return to normality in March Were. A person familiar with the matter told Reuters.
Lee, who is set to be named the country’s new prime minister this month, had another urgent thought.
In an effort to stem the economic toll of the zero-COVID campaign, it decided to activate the restart plan as soon as possible, said four people with knowledge of the matter and another person. The result was a chaotic reopening in December, when China abruptly ended the lockdown, mass testing and other restrictions.
Beijing has not publicly explained its decision-making process behind its U-turn on the zero-Covid approach. Xi and Li, as well as the State Council, China’s cabinet, did not respond to requests from Reuters submitted through the State Council Information Office (SCIO) about discussions about reopening the country.
Reuters assembled this account of China’s reopening path after speaking to more than half a dozen people with knowledge of the discussions. The previously unreported details provide a rare window into deliberations between top Chinese officials and health experts, including differences between Li and Xi about the pace of reopening. The people spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject or because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
The two people said the protests in November marked a turning point in Xi’s handling of COVID management as he began to take a less pragmatic approach and allowed his longtime ally Li to take charge.
Two sources said top leaders ultimately opted for a hasty reopening, which would pacify young protesters because dissidents could pose a threat to the stability of the regime, more so than allowing the virus to spread unchecked. was seen as a political risk.
setting the scene
At a Communist Party congress in mid-October where he won an unprecedented third term and unveiled his new leadership team, Xi praised his zero-Covid policy, saying it was achieving positive results. Still, before the month was out, officials gathered in Beijing to discuss how to tone down that tough approach.
Wang Huning, deputy head of the party’s central COVID task force since early 2020 and a member of China’s elite seven-member Politburo Standing Committee, held a closed-door meeting with top medical experts and senior officials in late October, promoting Tantra people were also involved. , according to three sources.
Wang repeatedly asked attendees how many deaths would result from abandoning COVID controls in a worst-case scenario, and pressed them to work out different roadmaps for reopening with different paces, two of the people said. Wang did not respond to a request for comment submitted by SCIO about his role in the talks.
Two sources said officials at the National Health Commission (NHC) have proposed benchmarks for a full reopening, which is key to improving vaccination rates for the elderly.
Meanwhile, some local-level party workers and healthcare officials grappled with mounting challenges in implementing the zero-Covid policy.
A local leader of a sub-district in Beijing with more than 100,000 residents told Reuters that by the second half of last year it had run out of money to pay testing companies and security firms to enforce the restrictions.
“From my point of view, it is not that we are ready to relax the zero-Covid policy, it is more that we were not able to implement the zero-Covid policy at the local level,” the official said.
Beijing’s local government, which did not respond to a request for comment, spent nearly 30 billion yuan ($4.35 billion) on COVID prevention and control last year, official data show.
Party leaders are expected to present a plan to help the economy recover from the pandemic at the annual meeting of China’s parliament beginning March 5.
As officials worked on reopening plans, the virus was already outpacing the government’s ability to contain it.
An official at the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in one of the country’s largest cities said that due to a spike in infections in autumn, staff tasked with collating infection data regularly meet with senior CDC managers would ask whether the numbers they were seeing were “too high”, and whether they should report a lower figure to the public. Doing so could make it look like the outbreak was under control, the person said.
“At that point, I was taking cuts of up to 50%,” the official said, adding that local officials were running out of money and some CDC officials’ salaries had been cut last year.
The CDC did not respond to a request for comment about China’s case data and its involvement in restarting talks.
In response to a Reuters request for comment, the NHC said China had continuously adapted and adjusted prevention and control measures aimed at protecting health, and had made a smooth transition to reopening in a relatively short period of time .
rise of lee
With the rise of Lee there was talk of a reopening. Before his promotion in October, the 63-year-old was in charge of Shanghai, where he oversaw a two-month lockdown of the city’s 25 million people last year.
After the congress, Li took command of China’s fight against the virus as head of the party’s central COVID taskforce, which reports to the Politburo Standing Committee, according to two sources. On 11 November, China announced a modest set of 20 measures to loosen restrictions.
Xi himself began to take less personal precautions. He began appearing without a mask in public both in Beijing and abroad, as with his meeting with US President Joe Biden ahead of the Group of 20 summit in Indonesia on 14 November, as well as the Canadian prime minister’s bare-faced appearance. shows the collision of Justin Trudeau.
But when daily cases spiked after China’s easing measures took effect, Xi wavered, and wanted to revert to a zero-COVID approach, said three people familiar with the matter. In mid-November, while Xi was still in Southeast Asia, he ordered Chinese officials to “unrelentingly” execute a zero-COVID policy, two people said, after which some cities imposed restrictions. Removed.
Xi’s indecisiveness sparked a fresh debate on COVID policy among the top leaders from mid- to late-November, said one of these people and another. By then, there were enough signs to suggest that economic growth was set to fall to its worst level in nearly half a century.
In discussions after Xi returned from abroad on November 19, Li resisted pressure from the president to slow the reopening, two people said. Reuters was not able to establish how Xi responded.
As the virus continued to spread, Li encouraged local party officials, including in Shijiazhuang, the capital of Hebei province, to stick with the 20 easy measures, two of the sources said. In mid-November, Shijiazhuang halted routine community testing as it was reporting hundreds of new infections daily.
A representative of the Shijiazhuang government declined to comment on any association with Li or the effects of the epidemic policies on residents.
Around this time, millions of people in China were watching the soccer World Cup in Qatar, where footage of packed stadiums and masked fans prompted Chinese social media users to complain about the opposite of their position.
A final trigger to accelerate the reopening came in late November. After a deadly fire in China’s Xinjiang region, a protest calling for an end to zero-Covid has turned into the biggest show of discontent in mainland China since Xi took power.
Xi blamed the protests on youths frustrated by the pandemic. But he said the Omicron variant, rather than the more deadly Delta, was now in effect in China, paving the way for fewer restrictions, senior EU officials told Reuters after European Council President Charles Michel and other senior EU leaders. Met Xi on Dec. ,
Finally, on 7 December, China announced sweeping changes to its COVID policy, abruptly ending many restrictions such as lockdowns, mass testing and local travel restrictions. Two sources said the reopening plan initially would have maintained mass testing, but Lee successfully pushed for broad relaxations.
Soon after reopening, the virus spread, hospitals and cremation grounds were overwhelmed and pharmacies were overrun. Without deterring, Lee urged officials during a nationwide teleconference on December 25 to immediately deploy resources and secure medicine and treatment for key groups, including the elderly and children.
Lee told officials that “the time is right and the basic conditions are in place” to manage COVID as a less severe, category B disease, according to a written summary of the meeting reviewed by Reuters and cited by a source believed to be authentic. Confirmed.
According to Xinhua, on 16 February, Xi declared a “decisive victory” over COVID in a meeting with top leaders, calling the party’s decision and decisions including “major adjustments” to the epidemic strategy “completely correct”, effective told. and well received by the public.
(This story has not been edited by NDTV staff and was auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)
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