China has announced the most sweeping changes to its tough anti-COVID-19 regime since the pandemic began three years ago, loosening rules that curbed the spread of the virus but hobbled the world’s second-largest economy and sparked protests.
The relaxation of rules, which include allowing infected people with mild or no symptoms to quarantine at home and dropping testing for people travelling within the country, is the strongest sign yet that Beijing is preparing its people to live with the disease.
Many of the changes announced by the National Health Commission (NHC) reflected steps already taken in various cities and regions in recent days, following protests against COVID-19 controls that were the biggest demonstration of public discontent since President Xi Jinping came to power in 2012.
Even still, citizens cheered the prospect of a shift that could see China slowly emerging back into a world three years after the virus erupted in the central city of Wuhan in late 2019.
Easing of rules most viewed topic on Weibo
Wednesday’s announcement quickly soared to the top most viewed topic on China’s Weibo platform, with many people hoping for a return to normality after a series of weeks-long lockdowns that have brought mental suffering to tens of millions.
Some investors also welcomed the shift that could reinvigorate China’s sagging economy and currency and bolster global growth.
“This change of policy is a big step forward,” said Zhiwei Zhang, chief economist at Pinpoint Asset Management.
“I expect China will fully reopen its border no later than mid-2023.”
Hopes for relaxing of travel restrictions
Foreign businesses in China also hope the changes could mark a shift to a broader opening up and an easing of travel restrictions.
“We need the business environment here to return to a level of predictability whereby companies can return to normal operations,” Colm Rafferty, chairman of the American Chamber of Commerce in China, said in a statement.
But NHC spokesperson Mi Feng told a news conference any changes to measures regarding travel would be “gradual”.
The policy change came after President Xi Jinping, who regards China’s relentless fight against COVID-19 as one of his main achievements, chaired a meeting of the Communist Party’s Politburo on Tuesday.
Major cities gripped by protests last month
Some analysts seized on a report on the meeting by official news agency Xinhua that lacked any mention of the “dynamic zero-COVID” policy, though it was unclear whether this was a signal of a fundamental change in stance.
Major cities across China, including Beijing and Shanghai, were gripped by protests last month, which started to peter out amid a heavy police presence and various restrictions being lifted in different parts of the country.
Officials have not linked any of the changes, made on Wednesday or earlier, to the protests.
But they have been softening their tone on the health risks of the virus – bringing China closer to what other countries have been saying for more than a year as they dropped restrictions, and shifted towards living with the virus.
Run on cough and fever medicines
The looser approach has set off a rush for cough and fever medicines as some residents, particularly the unvaccinated elderly, feel more vulnerable to a virus that has largely been kept in check by Beijing’s strict policy.
The surge in demand drove up share prices in manufacturers including cough syrup producer Guizhou Bailing and Xinhua Pharmaceutical, which makes 40 per cent of all Ibuprofen sold in China.
China’s current tally of 5235 COVID-related deaths is a tiny fraction of its population of 1.4 billion, and extremely low by global standards.