Thousands of older people have staged a rally in the rain in central China to protest against significant cuts to their medical benefits, in the latest outburst of public discontent since nationwide protests against Covid curbs gripped the country late last year.
Video clips on social media show a large crowd of elderly protesters in raincoats and holding umbrellas gathering outside the Wuhan city government by the Yangtze River on Wednesday, while police officers form a line to stop them from approaching the gates. The location of the rally has been verified.
“Ripping off ordinary folks like us? Why not rip off you officials first and cut your [benefits] by half? This is outrageous,” shouted a voice at police officers from behind the camera in a video on Radio Free Asia’s Twitter account.
Other footage showed elderly protesters surrounding a police vehicle while singing the Internationale and shouting slogans. Witnesses said some people were taken away by police.
A Wuhan city government official said “we did not receive any notification,” while calls to Wuhan police went unanswered.
Local residents told Radio Free Asia that most of the protesters were retired workers at the Wuhan Iron and Steel plant, but there were also people from other state-owned enterprises and disgruntled residents whose homes had been forcibly demolished.
The retired workers were complaining about a steep cut in their medical benefits after the Wuhan government announced a public health insurance reform, which reduces the medical expenses one could claim from the state.
“They are calling for their medical benefits to be restored to their original level, which was 260 yuan [£32] a month,” said a person who gave the surname Gao. “A lot of people have had theirs cut to 88 yuan or 82 yuan.”
Another person confirmed the figure in a Twitter post, adding that the maximum amount that could be claimed had fallen from 4,000 yuan to 1,300 yuan.
Residents said the cut had come at a time of soaring healthcare costs that many retirees could not afford.
Residents said the retirees threatened to take to the streets again on 15 February unless the government responded immediately. Some posts said the authorities had since agreed to suspend the reform, although this could not be independently verified and government officers would not comment.
Many sympathetic voices emerged on Chinese social media, although several that referred to the protests appear to have been deleted.
“Retirees are normally a timid bunch who just wanted a quiet life. If even they have been driven to desperation, it’s time to rethink the policy,” said a post on Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter-like social media platform.
The protest came amid warnings from the central government that it would not bail out local governments whose budgets have been drained by three years of President Xi Jinping’s zero-Covid policy. Joe Biden said on Wednesday that Xi faced “enormous problems” but Beijing condemned the US president’s remarks as “extremely irresponsible”.
Although Wuhan authorities have not directly responded to the protest, one day after the incident a report on a Chinese government website addressed the complaints over the health insurance reform. It quoted local authorities as claiming that although the medical expenses that could be claimed by retired workers had been reduced, they would have better access to healthcare and they would in fact make savings.
Some remain unconvinced, however. “Thinking of our own future retirement, this reform has put me off contributing towards health and social insurances,” a Weibo user said.
Additional reporting and research by Chi-Hui Lin