Amid protests and a teetering economy, Xi suffers his first defeat, backtracking on 'zero-COVID'

Some pandemic restrictions have been lifted. Hitherto, the Chinese leader had steadfastly defended his policy. Grassroots pressure and a poor economy have led to a partial change of direction. The Wei Jingsheng Foundation awards prize to protesters and the "lone hero" who displayed anti-Xi banners in Beijing.

Beijing (AsiaNews) – China’s state council (cabinet) announced measures to ease anti-pandemic restrictions in force for almost three years.

Now people who tested positive for COVID-19 but show no or only mild symptoms will be able to isolate themselves in their homes rather than in special state facilities. They will also no longer show negative tests to access most public places and will be allowed to travel more freely in the country.

For Chinese President Xi Jinping, this represents his first real defeat, less than two months after the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC) gave him a third, unprecedented mandate in power.

During the congress, the supreme leader was still defending his anti-COVID policy, in contrast to what was happening in the rest of the world, where governments chose to live with the disease.

In the official statement following a Politburo meeting held yesterday, Xi’s zero-COVID policy is not even mentioned.

For some observers, this is too little for a decisive change of direction. In fact, the authorities can still reintroduce restrictions should the COVID-related death rate increase, the situation of seniors become more critical, or hospitals fail to cope with any upsurge.

The authorities could deal with all these challenges if they implemented an effective vaccination campaign.

Just a year and a half ago, celebrating the centenary of the CPC, Xi praised the country's economic recovery from the pandemic crisis.

Today, massive street protests against lockdowns and a poorly performing economy have forced Xi to partially back down, at the risk of losing face and weakening his position within the CPC. To stay in charge, he must deliver results.

The wave of demonstrations began to sweep across the country after protests broke out in Urumqi, capital of the Xinjiang autonomous region, where people demanded an end to Xi's zero-COVID policy.

Many residents blame the authorities for the death on 24 November of 10 people because draconian anti-pandemic measures hindered their escape from their building after it was engulfed in a fire.

The Wei Jingsheng Foundation, which is headed by Wei Jingsheng, the father of Chinese democracy, now living in exile in the United States, awarded its 2022 prize to Blank Paper revolution protesters for championing democracy in China.

They received the recognition along with Peng Lifa, author of a sensational one-man protest on the eve of the 20th CPC congress.

The 48-year-old native of Heilongjiang unfolded banners critical of Xi on a Beijing bridge in the most deliberate challenge to the regime since the 1989 Tiananmen Square democracy movement.

Police immediately arrested Peng, who has become somewhat of an Internet star, dubbed the "bridge man", "lone warrior" or "brave man".

According to the Wei Jingsheng Foundation, his protest set the stage for the latest unrest. A few days before his action, Peng wrote to the US-based organisation explaining his position.

In addition to suggesting solutions to the government of China while calling for action against the "traitor" Xi, the activist noted that “Our essential methods start from nonviolent and legal protests such as strikes in schools and strikes at work and honking horns.  We must first ignite the spark of freedom, and then cause a prairie fire.”