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China lifts some COVID lockdowns, but it's unknown how fast policy will change

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

In China, protests against the government's tough pandemic control policies have ended with a police crackdown. Yet there are small signs emerging that the voices of those who bravely took to the streets were actually heard in the halls of power. NPR's John Ruwitch reports.

JOHN RUWITCH, BYLINE: China's dynamic "zero COVID" policy has been the bedrock of the government's approach to the coronavirus for the entire pandemic, with its mass testing lockdowns and forced quarantines. China's strongman leader, Xi Jinping, has been a big backer. So for political reasons alone, few think the government will scrap it wholesale anytime soon. There are also legitimate medical reasons to take it slow. But analysts think the protests have been a catalyst for change.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED NEWSCASTER: (Non-English language spoken).

RUWITCH: That's state TV reporting on a meeting between Sun Chunlan, the leadership's point person on COVID, and front-line health workers on Thursday.

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UNIDENTIFIED NEWSCASTER: (Non-English language spoken).

RUWITCH: Sun said it's important to take the initiative to, quote, "optimize and improve" prevention and control policies. And she admitted the omicron variant's ability to cause illness is weakening. That's a big shift in tone for China.

WINNIE YIP: I think that things are happening quite fast. For her to say something like this publicly is an indication - or paving the way for a change in policy.

RUWITCH: That's Dr. Winnie Yip, an expert at Harvard University who follows China's health policy closely. She says the government's set a fresh target to dramatically boost vaccination of the elderly by the end of January.

YIP: You see that a couple of cities have reduced their restrictions. And there's no repercussion of that, which is, again, another signal.

RUWITCH: Lockdowns have been lifted in cities including Guangzhou, in the south, and Zhengzhou, in the center of the country. How fast the policy changes will come is unknown. For months, experts have been pushing the government to ramp up vaccinations and cut back on testing, lockdowns and travel restrictions. And it looks like it took mass protests against the policy for this to finally start happening.

YIP: The protest is sort of moving them - it might be pushing them to a faster timeline.

RUWITCH: And that's good, she says. But they're not out of the woods. If they move too quickly, there could be a surge in cases and deaths.

John Ruwitch, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

John Ruwitch is a correspondent with NPR's international desk. He covers Chinese affairs.