By Stephen McDonell
BBC News, Beijing
Crowds of residents in southern China’s industrial metropolis Guangzhou have escaped a compulsory lockdown and clashed with police, as anger at strict coronavirus curbs boiled over.
Dramatic footage shows some overturning a police vehicle and tearing down Covid control barriers. Riot teams have now been deployed in the area.
It follows Guangzhou’s worst Covid outbreak since the pandemic began.
Amid bad economic figures, China’s zero Covid policy is under enormous strain.
Tensions had been building in the city’s Haizhu District, which is under stay-at-home orders.
The area is home to many poorer itinerant labourers. They have complained of not being paid if they are unable to turn up for work, and of food shortages and skyrocketing prices while living under Covid control measures.
For several nights, they’d been tussling with the white-clad Covid prevention enforcement officials, and then overnight on Monday the anger suddenly exploded onto the streets of Guangzhou with a mass act of defiance.
Again, unsubstantiated rumours have played a role. Stories have spread that the testing companies are faking PCR results to artificially boost the number of infections in order to make more money.
In the north of the country, the coronavirus rumour mill is also building pressure.
Officials in Hebei Province announced that the city of Shijiazhuang would halt mass testing. But this led to speculation that the population was going to be used, guinea-pig-style, to monitor what would happen if the virus was allowed to spread unchecked.
Discussion of this has appeared on social media platforms under the hashtag #ShijiazhuangCovidprevention.
Many panicking locals have stockpiled Chinese medicines which are said to help with Covid infection. Supplies in the city are said to have virtually run out for the moment.
A similar viral rumour led to the mass breakout of workers at the Foxconn complex in the central city of Zhengzhou two weeks ago, which has hit the global supply of Apple iPhones.
Local governments across China are struggling to maintain a zero-Covid approach without trashing their economies. The latest official factory output and retails sales figures show the crushing impact of the pandemic and the government’s policy response to it.
There are no provinces at all which have reported zero cases in recent days.
Around 20 million people in the heart of western China’s mega city of Chongqing have been placed under a type of lockdown being referred to ironically by people as “voluntary static management”. This is because, though there has been no official announcement, they’ve been told to remain indoors by community officials.
Online there have been jokes that the Chongqing government didn’t want to announce a mass lockdown on the same day that measures easing zero-Covid rules across China were revealed.
Because Covid amelioration still dominates life here, even a small shift in the way it is being administered can cause consternation and panic.
At the beginning of this week, officials in Beijing’s Chaoyang district decided to close many of the street-side testing booths and move them into housing compounds. There was a sudden cut in the number of PCR stations. The problem is that many office buildings require a daily result, or you can’t enter.
So at the booths that were open, the queues were enormous.
From the workers stuck in Tibet who protested to leave Lhasa, to the lockdown of the entire region of Xinjiang, zero-Covid is not going smoothly.
A series of changes announced last week slightly toning down the rules were seen as a sign that more easing was possible down the road. But even if the government is considering this, it may not be soon enough.