Chinese President Xi Jinping has called for more effort and unity as the country enters a “new phase” in its approach to combating the pandemic, in his first comments to the public on Covid-19 since his government changed course three weeks ago and relaxed its rigorous policy of lockdowns and mass testing.
In a televised speech to mark the New Year, Xi said China had overcome unprecedented difficulties and challenges in the battle against Covid, and that its policies were “optimised” when the situation and time so required.
“Since the outbreak of the epidemic … the majority of cadres and masses, especially medical personnel, grassroots workers braved hardships and courageously persevered,” Xi said. “At present, the epidemic prevention and control is entering a new phase, it is still a time of struggle, everyone is persevering and working hard, and the dawn is ahead. Let’s work harder, persistence means victory, and unity means victory.”
China’s abrupt switch earlier this month from the “zero-Covid” policy that it had maintained for nearly three years has led to infections sweeping the country unchecked. It has also caused a further drop in economic activity and international concern, with Britain and France becoming the latest countries to impose curbs on travellers from China.
The switch by China followed unprecedented protests over the policy championed by Xi, marking the strongest show of public defiance in his decade-old presidency and coinciding with grim growth figures for the country’s $17tn economy.
In Wuhan, the epicentre of the Covid outbreak nearly three years ago, thousands gathered to mark New Year’s Eve and reflect on the pandemic. Residents there expressed hope that normal life would return in 2023 despite a surge in cases since pandemic curbs were lifted.
Many released balloons into the sky when the clocks struck midnight, as per tradition in the central Chinese city, before grabbing selfies with their friends.
Some came in fancy dress and almost everyone present wore masks as the country endures a wave of Covid that accelerated after curbs were dropped.
“In the past year, I feel that Covid-19 was very serious and some of my family members have been hospitalised,” one 17-year-old high school student, surnamed Wang, told Reuters from the riverside shortly after midnight. “I hope they will be healthy in the new year. This is the most important thing.”
Resident Chen Mei, 45, said she hoped her teenage daughter would see no further disruptions to her schooling. “When she can’t go to the school and can only have classes online it’s definitely not an effective way of learning,” she said.
“I am afraid,” said a lady surnamed Jin, referring to the possibility of being reinfected. “I was still afraid when I came out tonight, but I just wanted to come out, because everyone has come out.”
Twenty-four-year-old Wuhan resident surnamed Chen, who works in e-commerce. “It had been a long time since things were lively and vibrant.”
Police used loudspeakers at a number of locations, blasting out a short message on a loop telling people not to gather, to which people appeared to take little or no notice.
In Shanghai, which like many Chinese cities in 2022 was put under a lengthy lockdown, many thronged the historic riverside walkway, the Bund.
“We’ve all travelled in from Chengdu to celebrate in Shanghai,” said Da Dai, a 28-year-old digital media executive who was travelling with two friends. “We’ve already had Covid, so now feel it’s safe to enjoy ourselves.”
Across the country, many people voiced similar hopes on social media, while others were critical.
Thousands of users on China’s Twitter-like Weibo criticised the removal of a video made by local outlet Netease News that collated real-life stories from 2022 that had captivated the Chinese public.
Many of the stories included in the video, which by Saturday could not be seen or shared on domestic social media platforms, highlighted the difficulties people faced as a result of the previously strict Covid policy.
Weibo and Netease did not immediately reply to a request for comment.
One Weibo hashtag about the video garnered almost 4m hits before it disappeared from platforms at about noon on Saturday. Social media users created new hashtags to keep the comments pouring in.
“What a perverse world, you can only sing the praises of the fake but you cannot show real life,” one user wrote, attaching a screenshot of a blank page that is displayed when searching for the hashtags.
The disappearance of the videos and hashtags, seen by many as an act of censorship, suggests the Chinese government still sees the narrative surrounding its handling of the disease as a politically sensitive issue.
The wave of new infections has overwhelmed hospitals and funeral homes across the country, with lines of hearses outside crematoriums fuelling public concern.
Zhang Wenhong, director of the National Centre for Infectious Diseases, told the People’s Daily in an interview published on Saturday that Shanghai reached a peak of infections on 22 December, saying there were currently about 10 million cases.
He said those numbers indicated that some 50,000 people in the city of 25 million would need to be hospitalised in the next few weeks.
At the central hospital of Wuhan, where Covid whistleblower Li Wenliang worked and later died of the virus in early 2020, patient numbers were down on Saturday compared with the rush of the past few weeks, a worker outside the hospital’s fever clinic told Reuters. “This wave is almost over,” said the worker, who was wearing a hazmat suit.
A pharmacist whose store is next to the hospital said most people in the city had now been infected and recovered. “It is mainly old people who are getting sick with it now,” he said.
In the first indication of the toll on China’s giant manufacturing sector from the change in COVID policy, data on Saturday showed factory activity shrank for the third straight month in December and at the sharpest pace in nearly three years.