China's 'zero-COVID' policy has prompted mass protests throughout the country. Here's what it is.

  • Protests have erupted in recent days over China's strict "zero COVID" policy.

  • The stringent public health approach aims not only to quell the virus but eradicate it completely.

  • Tens of millions of people in China remain under lockdown more than two years into the pandemic.

Mass protests have erupted across China, spurred in large part by the country's COVID-19 policies, which have persisted for more than two years.

Demonstrations from Beijing to Shanghai in recent days come in response to China's "zero-COVID" policy, which employs harsh rules and regulations that are meant to not only contain the virus but eradicate it from the country completely.

Chinese President Xi Jinping has long defended the "zero-COVID" policy as "putting people first," and in the early days, the approach appeared to work: cases remained low; outbreaks were dealt with quickly via contact tracing and quarantine, and strict lockdowns kept deaths at bay. But tensions began to simmer as restrictions remained in place even as the rest of the world seemed to relax.

Harsh lockdowns continued in the country even after the Communist government announced a slightly-eased set of restrictions in early November.

Tensions finally boiled over last week after a Thursday apartment fire that killed at least 10 people in the city of Urumqi, where many residents have been under strict lockdown for months, prompted public questions about whether locked doors and other public health restrictions blocked firefighters from entering or victims from escaping.

As authorities continue to impose lockdowns and testing requirements amid a significant surge in cases and outbreaks, protesters are taking to the streets demanding the end of China's "zero-COVID" policy.

What is China's 'zero-COVID' policy?

The country has implemented one of the strictest public health policies in the world since the COVID-19 pandemic began, with millions of Chinese people living under some form of lockdown currently.

According to news reports, under the updated policy:

  • Local authorities are required to impose stringent lockdowns, even in areas where only a small number of COVID cases are detected

  • Businesses and schools are shut down in places that are under lockdown

  • Lockdowns persist until there are zero new infections reported in a place

  • People who test positive for COVID are forced to isolate at home or are housed at government quarantine facilities, oftentimes a hotel

  • Entire residential buildings were placed under physical quarantine in big cities earlier this year, per photos and reports

  • Mass, frequent testing is conducted in areas with positive case counts, as well as big cities

  • Incoming travelers are required to quarantine for five days at a government quarantine facility and for three days at home

  • "Close contacts" to a person who tests positive are required to isolate for five days at a government facility and three days at home

  • Key business travelers and sports groups are not permitted to leave their "closed-loop bubbles" during their stay

Thousands of demonstrators erupt in rare protests against COVID-19 restrictions across China.
Thousands of demonstrators erupt in rare protests against COVID-19 restrictions across ChinaAFP/Getty Images

What this can look like in practice

The drastic measures have led to desperation and extremism in certain instances, including reports of local authorities forcing workers to live and sleep in factories so they can continue working while quarantined.

Meanwhile, workers at an iPhone factory in Zhengzhou in November and shoppers at a Shanghai Ikea store in August staged mass breakouts over fears they would be trapped inside, according to BBC News.

Earlier this month, the father of a 3-year-old boy in Lanzhou said his son died due to carbon monoxide poisoning after officials monitoring the family's residential complex as part of China's COVID rules failed to seek medical assistance.

China's approach has drawn criticism from experts outside the country, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, who told CNN this week that shutdowns "should always be a temporary phenomenon" and "not a long-range strategy." But low vaccination rates and less effective, Chinese-made shots mean the country's natural immunity remains lower than much of the developed world.

Authorities this week continue to clamp down on the rare protests, which, while spurred by the country's "zero-COVID" policy, have broadened to include frustration about China's political repression and even some calls for Xi Jinping's resignation.

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