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Xi Jinping speaks up on Covid, calls for unity

In a televised speech to mark the New Year, Xi said China had overcome unprecedented difficulties and challenges in the battle against Covid
Xi Jinping
Xi Jinping
File picture

Reuters   |   Beijing   |   Published 01.01.23, 12:17 AM

Chinese President Xi Jinping called on Saturday for more effort and unity as the country enters a “new phase” in its approach to combating the pandemic, in his first comments to the public on Covid-19 since his government changed course three weeks ago and relaxed its rigorous policy of lockdowns and mass testing.

China’s abrupt switch earlier this month from the ”zero-Covid” policy that it had maintained for nearly three years has led to infections sweeping across the country unchecked.


It has also caused a further drop in economic activity and international concern, with Britain and France becoming the latest countries to impose curbs on travellers from China.

The switch by China followed unprecedented protests over the policy championed by Xi, marking the strongest show of public defiance in his decade-old presidency.

In a televised speech to mark the New Year, Xi said China had overcome unprecedented difficulties and challenges in the battle against Covid, and that its policies were “optimised” when the situation and time so required. “Since the outbreak of the epidemic... the majority of cadres and masses, especially medical personnel, grassroots workers braved hardships and courageously persevered,” Xi said.

“At present, the epidemic prevention and control is entering a new phase, it is still a time of struggle, everyone is persevering and working hard, and the dawn is ahead. Let’s work harder, persistence means victory, and unity means victory.”

New Year’s Eve prompted reflection online and by residents of Wuhan, the epicentre of the Covid outbreak nearly three years ago, about the zero-Covid policy and the impact of its reversal. People in Wuhan expressed hope that normal life would return in 2023 despite a surge in cases. 

Wuhan resident Chen Mei, 45, said she hoped her teenage daughter would see no further disruptions to her schooling. 

“When she can’t go to the school and can only have classes online it’s definitely not an effective way of learning,” she said. Across the country, many people voiced similar hopes on social media, while others were critical.

Thousands of users on China’s Twitter-like Weibo criticised the removal of a video made by local outlet Netease News that collated real-life stories from 2022 that had captivated the Chinese public. 

Many of the stories included in the video, which by Saturday could not be seen or shared on domestic social media platforms, highlighted the difficulties ordinary Chinese faced as a result of the previously strict Covid policy.

One Weibo hashtag about the video garnered almost 4 million hits before it disappeared from platforms. Social media users created new hashtags to keep the comments pouring in. 

“What a perverse world, you can only sing the praises of the fake but you cannot show real life,” one user wrote.

The disappearance of the videos and hashtags suggests the Chinese government still sees the narrative surrounding its handling of the disease as a politically sensitive issue.

UK-based health data firm Airfinity said on Thursday that about 9,000 people in China were probably dying each day from Covid.

Cumulative deaths in China since December 1 have likely reached 100,000, with infections totalling 18.6 million, it said.

Zhang Wenhong, director of the National Centre for Infectious Diseases, told the People’s Daily that Shanghai had reached a peak of infections on December 22, saying there were currently about 10 million cases. 

He said those numbers indicated that some 50,000 people in the city of 25 million would need to be hospitalised in the next few weeks.

At the central hospital of Wuhan, patient numbers were down on Saturday compared with the rush of the past few weeks, a worker outside the hospital’s fever clinic told Reuters. 

“This wave is almost over,” said the worker.

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