BEIJING ( Associated Press) — China is ending mandatory movement tracking, amid its uncertain plan to exit strict “zero COVID” protocols that have sparked widespread discontent.
The smartphone app will stop working at midnight on Monday, meaning residents’ movements will no longer be recorded, reducing the likelihood that they will be forced to move to places with high concentrations of infections .
The country’s ruling Communist Party does not allow third-party verification of its digital tools, and similar apps have been used in the past to crack down on free speech and movement. It is part of the same application package as Health Code, it is still in operation.
The government suddenly announced last week that it would end many of the harshest measures against the virus. The decision followed three years of lockdowns, travel restrictions and quarantines for those moving between provinces and cities, as well as mandatory diagnostic tests and requirements to show health certificates to access public places.
Protests broke out in Beijing and other cities last month over the restrictions, leading to calls for the resignation of President Xi Jinping and the Communist Party, public political demands not seen in decades.
Although greeted with relief, the lifting of restrictions has also raised fears of a new wave of infections that could overwhelm healthcare resources in some places.
Xi’s government is still officially committed to eliminating transmission of the virus, the last major country to maintain that goal. But new initiatives suggest the party will tolerate more cases without quarantining, isolating or closing businesses as part of a gradual return to a “zero COVID” strategy.
Facing the prospect of a rebound in COVID-19 cases, China is setting up more intensive care beds and trying to increase the capacity of hospitals to handle severe cases.
At the same time, the government changed course by allowing people with mild symptoms to recover at home instead of sending them to area hospitals, which have become notorious for overcrowding and poor sanitation.
Reports on the tightly government-controlled Chinese internet sought to reassure a nervous public that restrictions would continue to be lifted and that travel, indoor dining and other economic activities would soon return to pre-pandemic conditions.
Chinese leaders have long credited the “zero COVID” strategy with keeping case and death numbers well below those of other countries, although medical officials now say the more prevalent Omicron variant poses little risk .
After drastically reducing diagnostic tests, China announced only about 8,500 new cases on Monday, bringing the country’s total to 365,312, more than double the figure on October 1 with 5,235 deaths. By comparison, 1.1 million people have died from COVID-19 in the United States.
Protests broke out on 25 November after 10 people died in the northwestern city of Urumqi. Many believe that the restrictions against COVID-19 may hinder rescue operations. Officials deny the allegations spread online, but protesters voiced the frustration accumulated in cities such as Shanghai facing harsh lockdowns.
The party responded with a massive show of force and an unknown number of people were arrested at the protests or in the days following.
Xi’s government has vowed to reduce the cost and inconvenience of its measures after the economy shrank 2.6% in the three months to June from the previous quarter. Analysts predict that the Chinese economy may shrink in this quarter. Imports fell 10.9% in November compared with a year earlier in a sign of weak demand.
Some experts have cut their forecast for annual growth to as low as 3%, less than half of the robust 8.1% growth seen last year.
It is difficult to predict what measures Beijing will take, and experts noted that the ruling party could still reverse course and re-impose restrictions if there is a large-scale outbreak.
Last week’s announcement left plenty of room for local governments to set their own rules. For example, most restaurants in Beijing still require a 48-hour negative test, and government offices have even tougher rules.