In an extremely rare public protest in China, banners criticising the Chinese 'Zero Covid' policy and directly attacking President Xi Jinping appeared in Beijing on Thursday.
The banners called Xi a dictator and a tyrant, as per translations available on the internet, and called for the easing of restrictions under the 'Zero Covid' policy and said people should have rights and should not be treated like slaves.
The protest came days before Xi is widely expected to get an unprecedented third term as the Chinese head of state. The Communist Party of China (CPC) will convene its 20th National Congress on Sunday in which Xi is set to be elected as its leader yet again, paving the way for a possible Xi rule over China for life. Despite protests, there is no indication that China would ease its policy.
Another translation by CNN journalist Selina Wang of some of the slogans read as "Go on strike. Remove dictator and national traitor Xi Jinping" and "Say no to covid test, yes to food. No to lockdown, yes to freedom"
Journalist Bill Birtles called the protest "extraordinary" in context of the CPC meeting.
"Extraordinary given pre-Congress security plus surveillance...Extraordinary given the politics and security just out from the Congress...Such a small protest elsewhere wouldn't be worth so much attention but in Beijing. If anything the other banner is all the more daring in pre-Congress Beijing, calling Xi Jinping a dictator and calling for strikes," notes Birtles on Twitter.
The banners appeared to have rattled officials in China –where political protest is rare– as they hurriedly deployed police on numerous over bridges in Beijing to ensure that the protests are not spread, while mobile patrolling has been intensified in the city.
What's Zero Covid policy?
Zero Covid refers to the China's government's approach of imposing harsh blanket lockdowns in entire localities and even cities when infections are found.
The idea behind this is to keep people indoors and stop the viral spread, therefore minimising infections and deaths. This is opposed to the 'living with the virus' approach taken in the most of the rest of the world where infected pepole are isolated, their contacts are tracked, tested, and quarantined, but blanket lockdowns are not imposed in cities just because of a cluster of infections.
Zero Covid policy has led to great economic hardship and loss of industrial and economic production. It is also a burden on Chinese government.
China's financial hub Shanghai and capital Beijing were locked down for months earlier this year. "In March, an estimated 345 million people across 46 cities were in full or partial lockdowns, a population accounting for 40 per cent of GDP," said the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in a report.
It further reported, "While the Chinese leadership believes that massively expanded mass testing will identify infections early and trigger measures to contain the outbreak without causing harmful disruption to the economy, it is still too early to know whether that approach will succeed. One thing is known: testing at this scale costs tens of billions of dollars, which may amount to 1.5 per cent or higher of China’s GDP."
Big productive cities like Shanghai, Chengdu, Xian and several top ones and two-tier cities suffered or continue to suffer periodic prolonged lockdowns severely disrupting people’s lives. A new Hazmat suit-wearing police and health officials have become a common sight all over China.
Public resentment is brewing as the slowdown is resulting in job losses. According to recent data, China’s unemployment rate grew to about19 per cent, the highest in recent years.
While China claims to have vaccinated the best part of the population, officials complain of vulnerable groups like people above 60 years who are a cause of concern.
In almost all cities, especially in Beijing, people have to undergo testing for COVID on alternative days without which they cannot enter public buildings, restaurants, transport services or even taxis.
Under the zero-COVID policy, travel and transportation services within China and its connectivity to the world are hit hard. So much so that most of China’s massive infrastructure including its once most busy airports is currently wearing a deserted look.
No relaxation in Zero Covid policy
Unfazed by the rare protests, China on Thursday ruled out a rollback of the zero-COVID policy, saying no timeline can be fixed over the restrictions to fight the deadly pandemic, amidst growing frustration over the damage it is inflicting on jobs, businesses, economy and public life.
China has no timeline for an exit from its COVID strategy, a senior government advisor heading an expert panel bluntly said over the state-run CCTV, dashing hopes that the 20th Congress of CPC may modify or reverse the tough policy.
Liang Wannian, who heads China’s expert panel on Covid-19, said, "It’s not scientifically possible to clearly delineate” while acknowledging public expectations of the rollback of the policy ahead of the Congress, which was widely expected to confer a third term to the President Xi, who is an ardent advocate of the zero-COVID policy. We have been working to beat the pandemic but at this stage, from a scientific point of view, it is difficult to say definitively in which month we will have reached this standard."
Wannian's comments came as rare protests displaying banners expressing resentment over the zero-COVID policy appeared on social media.
Gauging the public resentment, the CPC mouthpiece People's Daily came strongly in support of the zero-COVID policy and accused those of "lying flat".
"If there is a large-scale COVID-19 resurgence, the spread of the epidemic will have a serious impact on economic and social development, and the final cost will be higher and the loss will be greater," one of the commentaries in the daily said.
(With AP inputs)