China is softening its tone on the severity of COVID-19 and easing some coronavirus restrictions even as its daily case toll hovers near record highs, after anger over the world's toughest curbs fueled protests across the country.
Several cities in the world's second-largest economy, while still reporting new infections, are breaking with practice by lifting district lockdowns and allowing businesses to reopen.
Health authorities announcing the relaxation of measures did not mention the protests, which ranged from candle-lit vigils in Beijing to clashes with the police on the streets of Guangzhou on Tuesday and at an iPhone factory in Zhengzhou last week.
The demonstrations marked the biggest show of civil disobedience in mainland China since President Xi Jinping took power a decade ago and come as the economy is set to enter a new era of much slower growth than seen in decades.
Despite near-record case numbers, Vice Premier Sun Chunlan, who oversees COVID efforts, said the virus's ability to cause disease was weakening, state media reported.
"The country is facing a new situation and new tasks in epidemic prevention and control as the pathogenicity of the Omicron virus weakens, more people are vaccinated and experience in containing the virus is accumulated," Sun said in comments reported in state media.
Sun also urged further "optimization" of testing, treatment and quarantine policies.
The mention of a weakening pathogenicity contrasts with earlier messages from authorities about the deadliness of the virus.
Less than 24 hours after violent protests in Guangzhou, authorities in at least seven districts of the sprawling manufacturing hub north of Hong Kong, said they were lifting temporary lockdowns. One district said it would allow in-person classes in schools to resume and would reopen restaurants and other businesses including cinemas.
Some changes are being implemented with little fanfare. A community of thousands in east Beijing is allowing infected people with mild symptoms to isolate at home, according to new rules issued by the neighborhood committee and seen by Reuters.
Neighbors on the same floor and three stories above and below the home of a positive case should also quarantine at home, a committee member said.
That is a far cry from quarantine protocols earlier in the year when entire communities were locked down, sometimes for weeks, after even just one positive case was found.
Another community nearby is holding an online poll this week on the possibility of positive cases isolating at home, residents said. "I certainly welcome the decision by our residential community to run this vote regardless of the outcome," said resident Tom Simpson, managing director for China at the China-Britain Business Council.
He said his main concern was being forced to go into a quarantine facility, where "conditions can be grim to say the least".
Prominent nationalist commentator Hu Xijin said in a social media post on Wednesday that many asymptomatic carriers of coronavirus in Beijing were already quarantining at home.
The southwestern city of Chongqing will allow close contacts of people with COVID, who meet certain conditions, to quarantine at home, while Zhengzhou in central China announced the "orderly" resumption of businesses, including supermarkets, gyms and restaurants.
National health officials said this week authorities would respond to "urgent concerns" raised by the public and that COVID rules should be implemented more flexibly, according to a region's conditions.
Re-opening next year?
Expectations have grown around the world that China, while still trying to contain infections, could look to re-open at some point next year once it achieves better vaccination rates among its elderly.
Health experts warn of widespread illness and death if COVID is let loose before vaccination is ramped up.
Chinese stocks and markets around the world dipped initially after the weekend protests in Shanghai, Beijing and other cities, but later recovered on hopes that public pressure could lead to a new approach by authorities.
More COVID outbreaks could weigh on China's economic activity in the near term, the International Monetary Fund said on Wednesday, adding it saw scope for a safe recalibration of policies that could allow economic growth to pick up in 2023.
China's strict containment measures have dampened domestic economic activity this year and spilled over to other countries through supply chain interruptions.
Following downbeat data in an official survey on Wednesday, the Caixin/S&P Global manufacturing purchasing managers' index showed factory activity shrank in November for a fourth consecutive month.
While the change in tone on COVID appears a response to the public discontent with strict measures, authorities are also seeking out for questioning those present at the demonstrations.
China Dissent Monitor, run by U.S. government-funded Freedom House, estimated at least 27 demonstrations took place across China from Saturday to Monday. Australia's ASPI think tank estimated 43 protests in 22 cities.