Marauding protesters in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou fought hazmat-suited health workers, destroyed Covid testing centers and flipped police cars during violent anti-lockdown protests last night. In a rare show of public anger over localized lockdowns, huge crowds of people crashed through Covid barriers and marched down the streets of Guangzhou.
Among all the latest outbreaks in China, Guangzhou, a city of 15 million, has the biggest caseload, with new daily infections of Covid-19 topping 5,000 for the first time and fueling speculation that localized lockdowns could widen. Videos posted and widely shared on Twitter showed chaotic scenes in Guangzhou’s Haizhu district late on Monday night as people charged down the streets and fought with white hazmat-suited health workers.
Footage shows a huge crowd of protesters tearing down Covid barriers and testing centers. One man is seen tearing down the gazebos at a makeshift testing center and trying to kick the Covid health workers who were stood in a line. Another video appears to show hazmat-suited health workers tasering some protesters who had approached them. One protester can be seen being pinned to the ground by a health worker, who is pressing his foot onto the man’s neck.
Astonishing scenes show a huge group of people defying officials and breaking down temporary red walls that had been set up to help with testing locals daily. Footage also shows a group of angry protesters working together to flip a police car over on Monday night as resentment over China’s ‘zero-Covid’ policy grows.
On Tuesday morning, footage showed the destroyed police car on its side, with its windscreen shattered. Another video showed local residents in the city blocking police officers and hazmat suited officials from reaching them by barricading a steel gate. The protesters were seen throwing items at the officials, who began shaking the gate in a failed bid to open it.
Several hashtags related to the topic of ‘riots’ in the area were scrubbed from China’s Twitter-like Weibo by Tuesday morning. Twitter is blocked in China. On Tuesday, authorities reported 17,772 new local Covid-19 infections for November 14, up from 16,072 a day earlier and the most since April, even as many cities scale back routine testing after authorities announced measures last week aimed at easing the impact of heavy coronavirus curbs.
In the capital Beijing, new infections hit a record high of 462 for Monday, up from 407 a day earlier. Major cities including Chongqing and Zhengzhou were among the worst-hit. Still, China is scrambling to limit the damage of its zero-Covid policy nearly three years into the pandemic, as the latest in a spate of dismal economic reports showed retail sales fell in October and factory output grew more slowly than expected.
While many residents have expressed guarded optimism after Friday’s announcement that some of the stringent Covid policies would be eased, concerns grew this week over the worsening outbreaks and there was confusion as some cities halted or adjusted regular testing. Monday night’s scenes from Guangzhou were the latest outpouring of frustration over Covid curbs that have triggered frequent lockdowns and enforced quarantines under a policy that China argues saves lives.
Last month, a Covid outbreak at a massive Foxconn plant in Zhengzhou sparked chaos. The outbreak saw many workers fleeing, including climbing fences, which hobbled production. In Guangzhou, home to nearly 19 million people, rising case numbers have fueled speculation that a handful of district-level lockdowns could be expanded.
‘The infection curve of Guangzhou is tracking the pace of Shanghai’s March-April outbreak, raising the question of whether a city-wide lockdown will be triggered,’ JPMorgan analysts wrote, referring to Shanghai’s two-month lockdown this year, which sparked widespread unrest. ‘It would become a testing point regarding the government’s determination to push for the relaxation of Covid control measures,’ they said.
JPMorgan estimates that cities with more than 10 new cumulative cases in the past week are home to 780 million people and account for 62.2% of GDP – roughly triple the levels seen at the end of September. Under China’s new rules, testing efforts are to be more targeted, easing what has been a significant financial burden on cities. On Monday, Beijing’s most populous district of Chaoyang moved some testing sites closer to residential compounds. While that increased the overall number of sites, it also led to long waiting times for many, fueling frustration, as many workplaces and other venues still require negative test results from within 24 hours.
On Weibo, a hashtag on testing booth closures was flooded with critical comments on Monday night before being censored: ‘What are working people supposed to do?’ wrote one Weibo user. Another asked: ‘What kind of brain came up with this policy?’ On Tuesday, state broadcaster CCTV said Chaoyang was adding more testing sites, including near offices. Friday’s easing announcement sparked a market rally on hopes that China is signaling plans to end a policy that has all-but-shut its borders and caused frequent lockdowns, possibly starting after the annual session of parliament in March. But experts warn that full reopening will require a massive vaccination booster effort, given low levels of herd immunity resulting from China’s isolation during the pandemic. It will also require a change in messaging, they say, in a country where catching Covid is widely feared.
In Shanghai, which has been reporting relatively low infection numbers, entire apartment blocks were still being sealed off and the Shanghai Disney Resort has been shut since Oct. 31 after a visitor tested positive for Covid. While the central government has urged a more flexible approach to controlling outbreaks, local authorities still have wide leeway to lock down buildings they assess as high risk ‘The rules are very clear, so why is our building shut?’ asked a Shanghai retiree whose building was sealed off with tape on Monday morning after a ‘close contact’ had been taken away and quarantined.
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