By Simone McCarthy and Wayne Chang, CNN
China’s top health officials have pledged to rectify Covid-19 control measures to reduce their impact on people’s lives, while deflecting blame for public frustration away from the policy itself, in their first press briefing since protests erupted against the government’s stringent zero-Covid policy over the weekend.
Lockdowns to suppress the spread of the virus should be lifted “as quickly as possible” following outbreaks, said health officials at a National Health Commission press briefing in Beijing on Tuesday, as they defended the country’s overall policy direction — which aims to stamp out the spread of the virus through hefty controls.
Cheng Youquan, a director at the China Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said “some issues” reported recently by the public are not due to the measures, but their application by local officials taking a “one-size-fits-all approach.” He said some controls had been implemented “excessively,” with disregard for the people’s demands.
Protests against the country’s zero-Covid policy, which includes a combination of lockdowns, forced quarantines and tight border controls, flared across China over the weekend, with citizens taking to city streets and college campuses to call for an end to the restrictive measures.
While protests in several parts of China appear to have largely dispersed peacefully over the weekend, some met a stronger response from authorities — and security has been tightened across cities with police deployed to key protest sites in the wake of the demonstrations.
Plan to boost elderly vaccination rates
Officials at Tuesday’s press briefing did not directly address the protests, but commission spokesperson Mi Feng said governments should “respond to and resolve the reasonable demands of the masses” in a timely manner.
When asked if the government is reconsidering its Covid policies, Mi said authorities “have been studying and adjusting our pandemic containment measures to protect the people’s interest to the largest extent and limit the impact on people as much as possible.”
Earlier this month, China announced 20 measures that were meant to streamline Covid-19 controls and reign in “excessive policy steps” taken by local authorities — who are under pressure from Beijing to control the number of cases in their regions.
The protests — and the pledges to refine the policy implementation — come as the country faces its most significant surge of cases.
China identified 38,421 locally transmitted cases on Monday, according to the National Health Commission, ending six consecutive days of record infections.
Low vaccination rates among the elderly have long been cited by authorities as a reason why China must maintain tight controls over the virus. On Tuesday, officials also announced an “action plan” to boost vaccination rates among this high-risk group.
Raising that rate is seen as necessary to eventually reopening the country and relaxing tough measures.
As of November 28, around 90% of China’s total population had received two doses of a Covid-19 vaccination, but only roughly 66% of people over 80 had completed two doses, officials said Tuesday.
China defends Covid-19 measures
Reactions to the officials’ statements on Chinese social media suggested they had done little to assuage frustration and anger over the zero-Covid policy. On a state media livestream of the press conference, many users called for an end to Covid testing, lockdown and centralized quarantine.
“We’ve cooperated with you for three years, now it’s time to give our freedom back,” said one top comment on the livestream, which was run by state media on the Weibo social media platform.
“Can you stop filtering our comments? Listen to the people, the sky won’t fall,” wrote another, referring to censorship on the platform.
In a separate briefing on Tuesday, China’s Foreign Ministry defended the Covid-19 control measures and civil rights in the country — where authorities regularly use far-reaching surveillance and security capabilities to quash dissent.
“China is a country under the rule of law, Chinese citizens enjoy various legal rights and freedoms that are fully protected by law,” spokesperson Zhao Lijian said, when asked about the protests in a regular briefing on Tuesday. “At the same time, any rights and freedoms should be exercised within the framework of the law.”
Asian shares rallied on Tuesday on signs that authorities had managed to contain protests, and then on hopes the health commission would announce an easing of Covid restrictions.
Hong Kong’s benchmark Hang Seng Index ended the day more than 5% higher. In mainland China, the Shanghai Composite Index and the Shenzhen Component Index both finished more than 2% higher, while the CSI300 Index, which tracks the largest listed stocks, closed more than 3% higher.
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CNN’s Nectar Gan, Juliana Liu and Beijing bureau contributed to this report.