Chinese Vice Premier Sun Chunlan, the woman dictator Xi Jinping tasked with enforcing his brutal Chinese coronavirus lockdowns, issued public remarks on Wednesday claiming Beijing would soon “optimize” its coronavirus response with “new tasks in epidemic prevention and control.”
The state news agency Xinhua reported that Sun – one of the country’s most hated politicians, who recently lost her Politburo seat at this year’s Communist Party Congress – made the remarks at the Chinese National Health Commission. Xinhua’s coverage did not note Sun saying anything on Beijing abandoning its brutal use of mass house arrest, business lockdowns, internment in quarantine camps, and other abuses to allegedly stop the spread of a virus. This did not stop many Western news outlets, however, from reporting that Sun had hinted at a “softening” in Chinese policies, leading to a surge in the prices of Chinese stocks.
Sun’s public appearance followed a turbulent weekend in which hundreds, if not thousands, of Chinese people took to the street in nearly every major city in the country, including Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Chengdu, and Zhengzhou. The country had been experiencing a steady increase in the frequency of protests since 2020 – most notably following an incident in Hubei province, where the Chinese coronavirus originated, where protesters flipped over a police car and brawled with officers in March of that year – but this weekend was different in that the protests appeared to occur simultaneously nationwide.
Footage from Hubei, #China appears to show residents attacking officers and police vehicles on a bridge as they attempt to access neighbouring Jiangxi province. The unrest follows weeks of #coronavirus lockdown in Hubei. pic.twitter.com/VpROreqzy6
— Hong Kong Free Press HKFP (@hkfp) March 27, 2020
Sun did not mention the protests this weekend in her comments to the National Health Commission, though many interpreted her making any comments at all as an intended response to the growing discontent in the country.
“Over the past three years, the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China and the State Council have always put people’s health and safety first,” Xinhua paraphrased Sun as saying on Wednesday, “and effectively dealt with the uncertainties of the [Chinese coronavirus] situation with a consistent strategy and flexible measures to fight the virus.”
Sun reportedly said that China is now in “a new situation and new tasks in epidemic prevention and control as the pathogenicity of the Omicron virus weakens, more people are vaccinated and experience in containing the virus is accumulated.”
Sun ordered the Commission to “improve diagnosis, testing, treatment and quarantine measures, strengthen immunization of the whole population, particularly the elderly, and step up the preparation of medications and other medical resources.”
“With the people at the centre, prevention and control work must steadily progress, policies continue to be optimised in small steps but without stopping,” the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post quoted Sun as saying.
The Morning Post cited as particularly important Sun’s admission that the “omicron” variant of Chinese coronavirus causes less severe disease and death, taking it as an indication that the Communist Party is ready to ease the precautions it claims are necessary to save lives. In reality, according to the Chinese regime’s own numbers, its “zero Covid” lockdown strategy has killed more people than the virus itself.
The Hong Kong newspaper was not alone in its optimistic interpretation of her remarks. European, Middle Eastern, and American corporate news outlets claimed that Sun had hinted at a “relaxation” or “softening” of “zero Covid,” noting that China’s state coverage of her remarks did not use the phrase “zero Covid” at all. The BBC went so far as to tie Sun’s alleged easing of restrictions to the protests directly.
The coverage of Sun’s remarks greatly benefitted the Chinese economy – despite the senior official saying nothing about easing restrictions and, in fact, calling for “optimizing” them. Japan’s Nikkei reported a major “surge” in the value of Chinese stocks following Sun’s public appearance:
[Chinese] indexes opened higher on Thursday morning. The CSI300 climbed 1.78%, and the SZSE Component Index and the SSE Composite Index traded 1.66% and 1.04% higher. Hong Kong stocks also rallied, with the Hang Seng Tech Index climbing at one point over 4%, while the Hang Seng Index, the broad market measurement, also jumped 3% at the opening.
China has struggled to convince foreign investors that its market is safe to do business in since the world largely abandoned similar lockdown measures in 2021, as vaccine products began to become available to the public and the virus mutated into variants that public health experts, even Sun herself on Wednesday, acknowledge are less deadly that its original iterations. In July, the Communist Party sent Premier Li Keqiang to calm investors at the World Economic Forum, promising China would “continue to pursue all-round opening to both developed and developing countries, work with other parties to uphold the multilateral trading regime with the WTO [World Trade Organization] at its core, and promote free trade and fair trade.”
Reporting on Sun’s appearance at the National Health Commission also appeared to underplay her role as enforcer and harbinger of more brutal lockdowns in the past two years. Xi sent Sun to Wuhan in March 2020 to inspect the first iteration of coronavirus lockdown, in which officials barricaded and welded residents into their homes. Sun walked the empty streets of Wuhan to look up into the windows at the imprisoned, who notably heckled and mocked her, chanting, “Fake, fake, everything is fake.”
“During these wartime conditions, there must be no deserters or they will be nailed to the pillar of historical shame forever,” Sun famously proclaimed in Wuhan as China made public its first plans for mass quarantine camps.
Sun made similar visits to Xi’an, Tianjin, and Shanghai, appearing in the giant cities shortly before the imposition of mass lockdowns. In Shanghai, where lockdown protocols met stiff resistance as the Communist Party had hinted early this year that the city was too wealthy to be locked down, Sun arrived for a scolding.
“Chinese Vice Premier Sun Chunlan … urged the city to adopt stricter attitude,” the state-run Global Times reported in April, “more thorough measures, and swifter actions, to ratchet up building of makeshift hospitals, expand isolation venues, and strictly follow guidelines in order to defeat [Chinese coronavirus].”
Sun’s role as brutal lockdown enforcer earned her a glowing profile as a feminist icon in Time magazine this year.
More recently, in July, Sun took the lead in apparently condemning the Chinese Center for Disease Control’s (CDC) call to end “zero Covid,” insisting that any modifications to the protocol were “not about relaxing rules.”