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China pivots quickly on its COVID messaging — surprising many Chinese

ROB SCHMITZ, HOST:

For three years, China followed a tough zero-COVID policy to try to keep the pandemic at bay. But policymakers have pivoted hard in recent days, dropping most testing and quarantine requirements and letting the virus spread largely unchecked. It's an abrupt about-face that few expected so quickly. And as NPR's John Ruwitch reports, it's got heads spinning.

JOHN RUWITCH, BYLINE: Liang Wannian is one of China's top epidemiologists and an architect of the zero-COVID policy. Two months ago, at a press conference, he said COVID - and particularly the omicron variant - was causing high excess death rates worldwide.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LIANG WANNIAN: (Through interpreter) If we relax and stop following the dynamic zero-COVID policy, it will inevitably lead to mass infection.

RUWITCH: Mass infection among the elderly and those with chronic conditions could lead to large numbers of people with serious illness and deaths, he said.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WANNIAN: (Through interpreter) And that is something we cannot tolerate.

RUWITCH: Fast forward to this month and the message has changed.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WANNIAN: (Through interpreter) The virulence of the coronavirus has clearly fallen. The rate of severe cases and deaths compared with the original virus and delta has clearly dropped. The virus is much more mild now.

RUWITCH: For a lot of people, it feels like whiplash.

CORINNE HUA: Everybody you meet is just really perplexed by the whole thing.

RUWITCH: That's Corinne Hua. She lives in Shanghai, where she runs an NGO.

HUA: It's just such a strange feeling of going from such strict controls to mayhem. (Laughter) That's all I can call it, really. It's absolute chaos.

RUWITCH: Testing has been scaled way back, tech-enabled tracking of people's movements has mostly ended, and almost nobody is getting hauled off to quarantine anymore. Different cities and provinces are moving at different paces. Meanwhile, anecdotally, case numbers are soaring. Still, many are happy to be moving on from the restrictions of zero-COVID, even if the messaging did a 180 almost overnight.

HE ZI: (Through interpreter) It's no big deal. It's been years - endless - and the policy has been such a pain.

RUWITCH: That's 66-year-old He Zi, who lives in Beijing. She says some places still require proof of a negative COVID test. But it's been a pain to get one. It was particularly hard for her husband this week.

ZI: (Through interpreter) He tested positive. So he went to do another test to confirm. But the line was more than a kilometer long. He tried twice and gave up.

RUWITCH: When it comes to propaganda signals, Patricia Thornton, a professor of politics and international relations at the University of Oxford, says one key group has been left hanging.

PATRICIA THORNTON: Local- and municipal-level officials in China have been pretty much marinating in some very urgent language about the importance of maintaining zero-COVID and stopping transmission in its tracks.

RUWITCH: Those officials have been getting clear signals from propaganda outlets like the People's Daily Newspaper since the pandemic started. Just two months ago, it ran a series of articles insisting the dropping zero-COVID was not an option. Now, Thornton says, that messaging has ended, and nothing has filled the void.

THORNTON: Local-level officials are now absolutely flummoxed. Without someone in Beijing, you know, doing a very open 180 on the propaganda front, there's just no way there's going to be any real clarity at the grassroots.

RUWITCH: Corinne Hua, the NGO leader, says the lack of new messaging from the very top makes her a bit uneasy.

HUA: And I feel like someone's hand's been kind of forced to let go of it. And he doesn't really want to let go.

RUWITCH: For China's leader, Xi Jinping, the zero-COVID policy has been a source of pride - proof that China could handle the pandemic better than others. The abrupt exit from zero-COVID will put that belief to the test.

John Ruwitch, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOMENIQUE DUMONT'S "RUNNING DOWN THE HILL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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