Crowds of hundreds of older people took to the streets in the Chinese cities of Wuhan and Dalian on Wednesday in escalating protests against changes to the public health insurance system.
The protests were sparked by cuts to monthly allowances paid to retire under China’s vast public health insurance system. The changes, gradually introduced since 2021, come as local government finances are strained following years of strict and costly zero-Covid policies.
On Wednesday, a crowd of demonstrators rallied in front of a park in the central Chinese city of Wuhan for the second time in a week. Videos posted on social media showed security guards by the entrance to a popular scenic spot, Zhongshan park, forming a human chain to prevent more demonstrators from entering. Crowds pushed against officers, while some videos showed people singing the “Internationale”. The song, also an anthem of the Chinese Communist party, has been a feature of some recent protests and has been used to accuse the party of straying from its origins.
A separate protest, consisting of hundreds of retirees, was also staged outside Wuhan’s city hall. Pictures shared on social media appeared to show local officials meeting some of those demonstrators for negotiations.
Hundreds of people also rallied on Wednesday morning over the same issue more than 1,200km away, in the north-eastern city of Dalian, a witness confirmed to Agence France-Presse.
“Give me back my medical insurance money,” the crowd shouted in one video, which the news agency geolocated to the city’s Renmin square, where a number of local government buildings are located.
In another video, a large column of police are seen guarding the city government building.
Total numbers of Wednesday’s protesters ranged from hundreds to thousands, across media reports. At last week’s protests witnesses reported some participants being taken away by police. Local residents at the time said the retirees had the threat of taking to the streets again on 15 February unless the government respondent immediately.
According to social media posts collated by a protest monitoring account, some public institutions in central Wuhan were closed for the day on Wednesday. There also appeared to be an increase in the number of community activities organized for the city’s older people, and some residents alleged security officers were preventing them from leaving their residential buildings, citing “public health insurance reasons”.
“These old people can come out [to protest] not only for themselves but also for future generations,” said one supporter on social media. “Medical and social insurance without a contract is a Ponzi scheme of CCP. If you don’t go on the streets today, your children and grandchildren will become slaves for generations.”
Another said: “If you reduce the basic living allowance for the people, who will trust the government in the younger generation?”
The protests in Wuhan, a city of 11 million people, have been exacerbated by the fact that its officials are largely unaffected by the changes, analysts have said.
“Civil servants and public institution staff are still entitled to subsidized 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.
On Thursday, China’s state planner and finance ministry announced policies aimed at stimulating spending on housing and unlocking consumer savings that have been built up during the pandemic.
The announcements, reported by state media, also included measures to help older people, improve childcare services and encourage couples to have more children.
Localized protests are not rare in China, but a spate of rallies across multiple cities last year with a shared focus on Covid restrictions and their social impact rattled authorities, who worked quickly to shut them down and arrest participants. There was also speculation that the sudden lifting of zero-Covid restrictions just weeks later was also connected to the protests.
Additional research by Chi Hui Lin
With Agence France-Presse