China reaffirms zero COVID-19 stance, relaxes rules after protests

BEIJING (AP) — Authorities relaxed anti-virus rules in scattered areas but reaffirmed China’s strict “zero COVID” strategy Monday after crowds called for President Xi Jinping to step down during protests against the controls that confine millions of people to their homes.

The government had no comment on the protests or criticism of Xi, the most widespread display of opposition to the ruling Communist Party in decades. There is no official word on how many people were arrested as police used pepper spray against protesters in Shanghai and struggled to quell protests in other cities, including the capital Beijing.

Beijing’s municipal government has announced it will no longer erect gates to block access to apartment complexes where infections are detected. He made no mention of a deadly fire last week that sparked protests after angry questions online about whether firefighters or victims trying to escape were prevented by locked doors or other virus controls.

“Passages must remain clear for medical transport, emergency escapes and rescues,” a city official in charge of epidemic control, Wang Daguang, was quoted as saying by China’s official news agency.

“Zero COVID,” which aims to isolate every infected person, has helped keep China’s case numbers lower than those in the United States and other major countries. But people in some areas have been confined to their homes for up to four months and say they lack reliable food supplies.

The ruling party last month promised to reduce the disruption to “zero COVID” changing the quarantine and other rules. But public acceptance is impossible after a sharp increase in infections prompted cities to step up controls, fueling complaints over-enforcement harms the public.

On Monday, the number of new daily cases rose to 40,347, including 36,525 without symptoms.

The ruling party’s People’s Daily newspaper called for its anti-virus strategy to be effectively implemented, suggesting Xi’s government has no plans to change course.

“Events have fully proven that every version of the prevention and control plan has stood the test of practice,” wrote a People’s Daily commentator.

Also on Monday, the southern manufacturing and trading metropolis of Guangzhou, the biggest hotspot in China’s latest wave of infections, announced that some residents would no longer be required to undergo mass testing. He mentioned the need to save resources.

Protests spread to at least eight major cities after at least 10 people died Thursday in a fire at an apartment building in Urumqi

Most protesters complained of excessive restrictions, but some chanted slogans against Xi, China’s most powerful leader since at least the 1980s. In a video verified by The Associated Press, a crowd in Shanghai on Saturday chanted, “Xi Jinping! Resign! KKK! Quit!”

Police using pepper spray broke up the demonstration, but people returned to the same spot on Sunday for another protest. A reporter saw an unknown number being led into a police bus after being detained.

Elsewhere, videos on social media said to have been taken in Nanjing in the east, Chongqing and Chengdu in the southwest and other cities showed protesters brawling with police in white protective suits or tearing down barricades used to seal off neighborhoods. The Associated Press was unable to verify that all of these protests took place or where.

Earlier, the ruling party faced public fury over the deaths of two children whose parents said virus checks hampered efforts to get emergency medical help.

Urumqi and a smaller city in Xinjiang, Korla, announced that markets and other businesses in areas considered at low risk of infection would reopen this week and public buses would resume in what appeared to be an effort to reassure the public.

There was no indication whether residents of the highest-risk areas would be allowed to leave their homes.

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