Thousands of retirees protest in Wuhan and Dalian over medical payout cuts

Protesters sing communist anthems, face off against ranks of police
By Gu Ting for RFA Mandarin
2023.02.15
Thousands of retirees protest in Wuhan and Dalian over medical payout cuts Police scuffle with retirees protesting cuts to medical benefits near the entrance to Zhongshan Park in Wuhan, China, on Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2023.
Credit: Screenshot from video obtained by Reuters

Thousands of people took to the streets of two Chinese cities – Wuhan and Dalian – on Wednesday in an ongoing protest over major cuts to their medical benefits, according to local residents and video footage posted to social media.

Video clips uploaded to social media showed crowds singing the communist anthem "The Internationale" under a traffic overpass in Zhongshan Park and along Jiefang Avenue in the central city of Wuhan.

Similar scenes unfolded in the People’s Square in the northeastern port city of Dalian, according to the Twitter account "Mr. Li is not your teacher" using the handle @whyyoutouzhele.

Other clips showed a crowd of older people facing off with ranks of uniformed police officers three or four deep who linked arms and started shoving the crowd slowly to make it pull back.

In one clip, an elderly man is seen lying on the ground with his head and legs propped up while people boo and shout at the police.

The protests were a continuation of an earlier rally outside municipal government headquarters in Wuhan on Feb. 8 against the slashing of medical payouts under an insurance scheme offered to retired employees of state-owned enterprises.

Zero-COVID policy drains coffers

They come after warnings from the central government in Beijing that it won’t be bailing out cash-strapped local governments, whose coffers have been drained by three years of President Xi Jinping’s zero-COVID policy, which ended in December.

Wuhan-based rights activist Zhang Hai said the demonstration there had gone ahead on Wednesday after a smaller protest outside government headquarters last week had failed to elicit a response from officials, and had taken place despite tight security measures.

"The government has been warning people not to go to Zhongshan Park or Shouyi Road since yesterday evening," Zhang told Radio Free Asia. "A lot of residential communities were under lockdown this morning, but a lot of people still turned out nonetheless."

"They are planning to march over by the Yangtze River Bridge after this rally," he said.

Zhang said police had responded by shutting down subway stations and cell phone masts serving the area.

"At the same time [as shutting subway stations], they have shut off the mobile phone signal, and they are making the crowd disperse," he said. "People at the scene say they have detained quite a few people already."

A person shooting footage of the crowd at the park gate said police were trying to get everyone to go inside Zhongshan Park.

"There were policemen everywhere and plainclothes [state security police] standing at the gate of the park," the person comments.

Detained at home

Wuhan resident Zhang Qiang said many other people had been detained in their homes to prevent them from protesting in the first place.

"A lot of people have been confined to their homes by stability maintenance," Zhang Qiang said. "I have been roped in too."

"The police are out in force around Zhongshan Park and Jiefang Avenue," he said.

A protester who gave only the surname Zhou said the cuts to medical benefits affect everyone, not just retired workers.

"People who are paying out 400 yuan a month are getting nothing back from the government now," he said. "So they can't buy their medication."

"They used to get more than 100 yuan a month [as a cash benefit] that they could use to buy medicines [over the counter], but now they're insisting we go to a hospital clinic -- they won't give us money to buy them from the pharmacy any more," Zhou said.

Wuhan businessman Ma Yongnian said he was in a similar situation.

"There are tens of thousands of people blocking the streets," Ma said, adding that similar changes were rolled out in the southern city of Guangzhou recently, but were withdrawn following major public opposition.

"Guangzhou withdrew this policy, but Wuhan is insisting on it," Ma said. 

He said hospital visits require a higher co-pay than pharmacies, putting medicines beyond the reach of many retirees.

"I'm affected by this too ... I can only claim 50% of fees in the top three hospitals, and there's an excess of 700 yuan before reimbursements even start," Ma said.

‘Rise up! Rise up!’

Meanwhile,  a person filming outside municipal government headquarters in Dalian said the large crowd in People's Square was there to "present their demands" to the authorities.

"They're all older men and women," the person comments on the video clip posted to Twitter by user @Pancho66196600, adding "There are quite a few police here too," as the crowd starts singing the “March of the Volunteers,” China's national anthem.

"Rise up! Rise up!" they sing, before the anthem fades on the winter air, and "The Internationale" takes its place, as some protesters heckle officials making their way into the government offices through the front gates. 

According to screenshots and photos posted by "Mr. Li" on Twitter, the protests went ahead in Wuhan despite reports that the authorities had tried to attract older people with a slew of community events for "grandparents," and unconfirmed reports that universities had been closed for just one day on Feb. 15.

Public transportation companies had also issued warnings to employees of a "major demonstration," according to a screenshot posted by the account.

In Dalian, protesters on People's Square also chanted the name of the city's mayor, the account said.

People in China frequently challenge those in power, despite nationwide measures aimed at nipping popular protest in the bud, the U.S.-based think tank Freedom House reported in November 2022.

Despite pervasive surveillance, a "grid" system of law enforcement at the neighborhood level and targeted "stability maintenance" system aimed at controlling critics of the government before they take action, the group identified hundreds of incidents of public protest between June and September 2022 alone.

Translated by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Malcolm Foster.

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