China spokesperson responds to question about Covid protests with painfully awkward silence

Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian responded to a reporter’s question on ending the country’s zero-Covid policy with awkward silence for nearly a minute.

The question came in the wake of unrest among several Chinese citizens who have become frustrated with stringent lockdowns and curbs for nearly three years.

Widespread, and unprecedented, protests not seen since 1989 erupted after anger arose when 10 people died in an apartment fire in Xinjiang region’s Urumqi city. The deaths, locals and protesters claim, could have been prevented had it not been for a lockdown.

On Monday, Mr Zhao was asked a question on the matter by a reporter from the Reuters news agency.

“Given the widespread display of anger and frustration at the zero-Covid policies in recent days across China, is China thinking about ending it and if so when?” the reporter asked.

The question was met with a rare display of awkward silence from the Communist party regime’s top spokesperson, who could be seen on video focusing his concentration on and ruffling papers kept in front of him without uttering a word or reacting to the question asked.

Around 30 seconds later, Mr Zhao quietly requested the interpreter if the question can be repeated.

The correspondent followed through with the request and was met by another roughly 20 seconds of deafening silence, which many have called rare, from the top official, who has handled communications for the Chinese foreign ministry since 2019.

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Mr Zhao then responded: “What you mentioned does not reflect what actually happened.” The ministry official added that China has been following a dynamic zero-Covid policy.

“We believe that... our fight against Covid-19 will be successful,” he said.

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The video of the news briefing has been widely shared on social media, who noted Mr Zhao’s perplexing silence.

“From his time in Pakistan to the present day, Zhao Lijian has rarely been at a loss for words. Until apparently now…,” said Tanvi Madan, senior fellow at research and policy thinktank Brookings.

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“Zhao Lijian asked about whether China is considering dropping the Zero Covid policy. He deals with the papers deftly. The question not so much,” Bloomberg reporter James Mayger said.

Many protesters held up blank pieces of paper to highlight censorship and the lack of freedom of expression in the country, which has prohibited criticism of its zero-Covid policy.

After two days of silence on the streets, fresh protests and altercations were reported in the Chinese manufacturing hub of Guangzhou on Tuesday night where protesters and hazmat suit-wearing riot police clashed.

The protests have also come just a little more than a month after Xi Jinping solidified a third term as president during a party congress.

China recorded 37,828 new Covid infections on Tuesday, out of which 4,288 were symptomatic and 33,540 were asymptomatic, the National Health Commission said on Wednesday.