Wuhan, China: Elderly residents protest health insurance cuts

Hong Kong

A protest broke out in central China’s Wuhan on Wednesday as elderly residents showed their discontent with a local government reform to public health insurance that came into effect earlier this month.

Photos and videos of the demonstration in Wuhan circulating on social media and seen by CNN show a large crowd of elderly people gathering in front of a city center park to express dissatisfaction with a cut in their medical benefits.

In some footage, the crowd can be heard singing the unofficial protest anthem “The Internationale.”

Police and government officials have yet to comment on the situation publicly. It’s unknown if there were any arrests. A heavy police presence is visible in the footage and, in at least one instance, officers appear to attempt to restrain the crowd.

While demonstrations and expressions of discontent are heavily controlled in China, frustrations around livelihood and environmental issues often lead to small-scale public protests at the local level.

The protest in Wuhan, where the first cases of Covid-19 were documented more than three years ago, appears to be the latest display of public frustration as the country grapples with the fallout from the stringent zero-Covid policy that was relaxed late last year by the government amid rare, nationwide demonstrations and mounting costs.

China recorded one of its worst economic performances in decades in 2022, according to official statistics, and local governments have found their budgets drained after years of supporting mass testing, snap lockdowns and centralized quarantines under the policy.

The protest on Wednesday came amid signals from the central government that it would not bail out local governments despite their debts piling up amid these financial hurdles.

The protest was at least the second one in a week in Wuhan, which is home to more than 11 million people. Videos circulating on social media last week showed a large crowd of elderly people protesting the same issue.

While the government did not directly comment on last week’s protest, Wuhan health authorities subsequently issued a statement acknowledging the reform, saying it would “reduce medical benefits in the short term” but “benefit those in sickness and the elderly population” for years to come .

China’s elderly make up a fifth of its 1.4 billion people, with the number of those 60 and above expanding to 280 million last year, officials said in January. The country’s population shrinks in 2022 for the first time in more than 60 years amid a deepening demographic crisis with significant implications for the slowing economy and elderly care.