(Bloomberg) — Chinese pensioners returned to the streets of Wuhan to protest changes to their medical benefits, highlighting the challenge confronting President Xi Jinping’s government following historic anti-lockdown demonstrations in November.
Photos and videos taken in Wuhan on Wednesday showed a large group of people gathered under an overpass singing and chanting, despite a heavy police presence. Hundreds of people and rows of police outside the city’s Zhongshan Park were also seen in photos shared on China’s Weibo microblogging platform.
Hours later, the online footage has largely disappeared, with searches for “Zhongshan Park” and “Wuhan medical insurance reform” on Weibo showing no results. Chinese censors regularly move to delete footage and restrict search results related to events critical of the government.
The developments signal the resilience of demonstrations after protests against pandemic lockdowns swept through China in November, just before the government began easing up on rigid coronavirus restrictions. They may be a harbinger of the challenges facing Xi early in his norm-defying third term as leader.
Footage captured in Wuhan showed protesters singing patriotic songs such as “Unity is Strength” and “The Internationale,” which has become a de facto anthem at many Chinese demonstrations.
Despite a vigorous censorship bureaucracy and massive government surveillance — a system expanded upon during the Covid-19 pandemic — Chinese citizens have become increasingly bold about protesting government policies. In recent months, residents have demonstrated against firework bans, stalled real estate projects, mandatory quarantine measures and unpaid wages, winning some concessions from the government in the process.
Xi’s government hasn’t sat back idly. While the president said last month that it was “only natural” for the population to have different views on some issues, a number of mostly younger people who demonstrated against the Covid restrictions in late November were later detained by the police.
The demonstrations in Wuhan appeared to be a continuation of earlier protests by retirees who took to the streets last week outside Wuhan’s municipal government offices over cuts to medical benefits. At the time, they said they would return Wednesday if their concerns were not addressed, Radio Free Asia reported.
The frustration isn’t limited to Wuhan. Retirees in China’s southern city of Guangzhou also protested over changes to medical coverage after residents found they were suddenly left with lower balances in their accounts each month.
Chinese health authorities have said the changes, which vary by province, would bring more services under coverage while cutting individual reimbursements. Authorities have also been trying to better communicate the policy shifts but that approach, so far, hasn’t stopped people from taking to the streets.
–With assistance from Zibang Xiao, Dong Lyu, Linda Lew, Selina Xu and Tao Zhang.
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