China official behind strict Covid-19 lockdowns softens her stance

Charged with China’s healthcare portfolio, Vice-Premier Sun Chunlan has become synonymous with the country’s hardline pandemic approach.


China’s outgoing Vice-Premier Sun Chunlan (left) said that China's fight against the pandemic is at a new stage and it comes with new tasks. REUTERS

December 1, 2022

BEIJING – China’s top official in charge of the fight against Covid-19 said the country’s efforts to combat the coronavirus are entering a new phase, with the Omicron variant weakening and more Chinese getting vaccinated, a fresh sign that Beijing may be seeking to amend its strategy.

“As the Omicron variant becomes less pathogenic, more people get vaccinated and our experience in Covid-19 prevention accumulates, our fight against the pandemic is at a new stage and it comes with new tasks,” outgoing Vice-Premier Sun Chunlan said at a meeting with the National Health Commission and health experts in Beijing on Wednesday.

She did not use the term “dynamic Covid zero” – used to describe China’s quest to quash outbreaks and eliminate Covid-19 – based on the statement issued after the meeting.

Ms Sun’s remarks appear to be the first official, public acknowledgment in China that the virus is no longer as severe, and come amid other shifts in rhetoric that signal the country is finally looking at moving away from the zero-Covid stance that has slammed its economy, left it globally isolated and disrupted people’s lives.

Charged with China’s healthcare portfolio, Ms Sun has become synonymous with the country’s hardline pandemic approach. If she appeared in a city experiencing an outbreak, it was typically a sign stricter measures like broad lockdowns were coming, a reputation that earned Ms Sun the nickname the “Old Lady of Lockdown” on Chinese social media.

‘Very significant’ comments
She was sent into Wuhan when the virus first emerged, making her pivotal to the strategy that was then deployed nationwide, and kept China virus-free for much of the past three years.

Yet, as more contagious variants challenged zero-Covid, she was charged with holding the line, going into Shanghai earlier in 2022 as cases spiralled out of control.

She also appeared in the southern resort island of Hainan in August, where thousands of tourists were stranded by mass testing efforts and lockdowns.

“Sun’s comments look very significant, as she was the tip of the spear when it came to the central government forcing local authorities to faithfully implement the Covid zero policies,” said Mr Gabriel Wildau, managing director at advisory firm Teneo Holdings in New York. “As a vice-premier and former Politburo member, she chooses her words carefully. So her failure to mention ‘dynamic Covid zero’ can’t be accidental.”

It remains to be seen whether the softening tone will mollify protesters, who took to the streets of multiple Chinese cities over the weekend in opposition to the strict Covid-19 policies. Further demonstrations have mostly been thwarted in the past few days by a heavy police presence.

Reopening hopes are buoying Chinese assets across the board, yet the country’s rules are still the most onerous in the world, with targeted lockdowns and testing efforts still leading to disruption. Much of the public remains fearful of the virus.

While Ms Sun made no reference to China reopening or what steps may be taken next, she did emphasise the need for China to accelerate planning for Covid-19 medicines and other medical resources.

“Sun’s comment sent the clearest official message so far that Omicron has become less of a health concern to the public, and it could be seen as the formal start of changing narratives around Covid,” said Mr Neo Wang, Evercore ISI managing director for China Research.

“But it doesn’t mean the real reopening is imminent,” he added.

Responding to protests

The shifting rhetoric comes alongside signs officials are easing some of the more sweeping restrictions.

The authorities in the southern manufacturing hub of Guangzhou lifted lockdowns in most parts of the city on Wednesday, including those hit by rioting, partially replacing them with high-risk areas. The designation still confers lockdown-like curbs on a region or neighbourhood, but is more targeted in scope.

A similar move was announced in Zhengzhou, home to Apple’s largest manufacturing site in China, which also saw widespread protests. It lifted broad restrictions, while keeping movement curbs in place in areas with Covid-19 outbreaks.

“Top leaders are clearly responding to recent protests,” Mr Wildau of Teneo said of Ms Sun’s remarks. “The challenge for the Communist Party is to minimise the perception that street protests can sway President Xi Jinping and the central leadership from its convictions, which would risk emboldening future protests–not just on Covid-19 but potentially other issues as well.” BLOOMBERG

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