Chinese students protest as university locks down over one Covid case

Footage shows large protest at Nanjing Tech University, as rules persist despite steps to ease zero-Covid policy

Students at a university in eastern China have staged a protest against a Covid lockdown as many in the country remain under some form of restrictions despite government steps to ease its zero-Covid policy.

Videos posted on Twitter on Tuesday show large numbers of students protesting at Nanjing Tech University on Monday night, as they were placed under lockdown after one positive case was found. The Guardian phoned the university for confirmation but calls went unanswered. The posts had been geolocated by AFP and Reuters.

“[We want] to go home!”, “Leaders, step down!”, “Your power is given to you by students, not by yourselves,” the students shouted, apparently referring to the university management. Footage showed a police car arriving at the scene.

A student confirmed to AFP that the protest had taken place a day after the school announced it would seal off the campus for five days because of just one Covid case. She said her peers were unhappy about poor communication from the university and worried they would be blocked from travelling home for the winter holidays.

The protest came days after people took to the streets in a number of Chinese cities, including Beijing and Shanghai, demanding an end to lockdowns and restrictions under the zero-Covid policy. In a bold act, some even called for the Chinese Communist party and President Xi Jinping to step down.

The Chinese authorities ended the unrest with a two-pronged approach of arresting protesters and stepping up online censorship and surveillance, while at the same time rolling back mass testing and curbs in many cities.

On Tuesday, Beijing dropped the need for people to show negative PCR tests to enter supermarkets, offices and public transport, but negative tests were still required for entering many places, such as schools, hospitals, nursing homes, bars and other entertainment venues. Many internet users reported long queues for PCR tests in freezing weather and voiced fears that people might get cross-infected.

Other cities, including Shanghai, have dialled down mass testing mandates in recent days but negative Covid tests are still required for entering similar places.

In the southern city of Guangzhou, officials began telling people to stay home if they had symptoms – a sharp about-turn from the previous approach of dragging all positive cases to central quarantine facilities.

But analysts at the Japanese firm Nomura on Monday calculated that 53 cities – home to nearly one-third of China’s population – still had some restrictions in place.

“Beijing readies itself for life again,” read a headline in the government-owned China Daily newspaper on Tuesday, adding that people were “gradually embracing” the slow return to normality.

Further loosening beckoned, after a string of demonstrations marked the biggest show of public discontent in mainland China since Xi Jinping became president in 2012.

“This might be the first step towards reopening from this pandemic,” said Beijing resident Hu Dongxu, 27, as he swiped his travel card to enter the subway, which has also dropped the need for tests.

In one inner-city area, some supermarkets had already removed signs from entrances demanding a health code. Most shops had reopened in one of the city’s biggest malls, which also required just a green health code to enter. The sudden change in restrictions meant few people were out and about just yet. A staff member at one restaurant said they were still offering only takeaway, despite dining-in now being allowed, because the short notice of reopening had left them understaffed and unprepared. However, they said they would probably restart on Wednesday.

Top officials have softened their tone on the severity of the virus, bringing China closer to what other countries have been saying for more than a year as they dropped restrictions and opted to live with Covid-19.

Tong Zhaohui, the director of the Beijing Institute of Respiratory Diseases, said the latest Omicron variant had caused fewer cases of severe illness than the 2009 global influenza outbreak, according to Chinese state television.

China could announce 10 new nationwide easing measures as early as Wednesday, two sources with knowledge of the matter told Reuters, as cities across the country began lifting localised lockdowns.

That has sparked optimism among investors for a broader reopening of the world’s second-biggest economy that could boost global growth.

Despite reassurances from authorities, commuter traffic in major cities such as Beijing and Chongqing has remained at a fraction of previous levels.

Some people remain wary of catching the virus, especially elderly people, many of whom remain unvaccinated, while there is also concern about the strain the loosening could put on China’s fragile health system.

China’s management of the disease may be downgraded as soon as January, to the less strict category B from the current top-level category A of infectious disease.

“The most difficult period has passed,” the official Xinhua news agency said in a commentary published late on Monday, citing the weakening pathogenicity of the virus and efforts to vaccinate 90% of the population.

Analysts predict China may reopen the economy and drop border controls sooner than expected next year, with some predicting it will fully open in spring.

But more than half of Chinese residents say they would put off travel abroad, for periods from several months to more than a year, even if borders reopened tomorrow, a study showed on Tuesday.

Fear of infection was the top concern among those saying they would postpone travel in a survey of 4,000 consumers in China by the consultancy Oliver Wyman.

China reported 5,235 Covid-related cases as of Monday. Some experts have warned that toll could rise above 1 million if the exit is too hasty.

With AFP and Reuters


Verna Yu and agencies

The GuardianTramp

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