Thursday Feb 16, 2023
BEIJING: Hundreds of retirees staged protests in the Chinese cities of Wuhan and Dalian on Wednesday against reforms to the public health insurance system, according to witnesses and images on social media.
Protests are rare in China, where authorities strictly enforce public order laws and opposition is quickly snuffed out.
But expressions of public anger do sometimes emerge, including widespread protests last year against strict COVID-19 rules, which have since been rescinded.
The latest outpouring of frustration has been sparked by reforms to China's vast public health insurance system that have reduced allowances paid monthly to retirees.
On Wednesday a crowd of demonstrators rallied in front of a park in the central Chinese city of Wuhan in the second such gathering in a week.
Video posted on social media showed security guards by the entrance to popular scenic spot Zhongshan Park forming a human chain to prevent more demonstrators from entering.
Four witnesses confirmed the rally took place and AFP was able to geolocate footage online to areas around the park.
In the northeastern city of Dalian, a witness confirmed to AFP that hundreds also took to the streets against the health insurance reforms.
Elderly demonstrators began gathering around 9 am on Wednesday, the witness said, but were gone by the afternoon.
"Give me back my medical insurance money," they can be heard chanting in one video, which AFP geolocated to the city's Renmin Square, where a number of local government buildings are situated.
In another video, a large column of police are seen guarding the city government.
Changes to the health insurance system prompted a separate rally by hundreds of retirees in front of Wuhan's city hall last Wednesday.
Pictures shared on social media appeared to show local officials meeting with some of those demonstrators for negotiations.
The insurance reforms, gradually introduced since 2021, come as local government finances are strained following years of strict and costly zero-COVID policies.
The protests in Wuhan — a city of 11 million people where the coronavirus first emerged in late 2019 — have been exacerbated by the fact that officials are largely unaffected by the reforms, analysts have said.
"Civil servants and public institution staff are still entitled to subsidised medical assistance insurance on top of the employee health insurance scheme," political risk consultancy SinoInsider said in a note.
"Senior and retired CCP (Chinese Communist Party) cadres have long had access to generous medical treatments at public expense and without having to pay for basic healthcare insurance."
Local governments could "compromise and meet protester demands early" rather than engage in a drawn-out dispute, the firm added.