STORY CONTINUES BELOW THESE SALTWIRE VIDEOS
By Martin Quin Pollard and Laurie Chen
BEIJING (Reuters) – Hundreds of retirees took to the streets in the Chinese cities of Wuhan and Dalian on Wednesday to protest cuts to medical benefits, according to residents and social media posts, following widespread demonstrations last year over COVID curbs.
In the central city of Wuhan, hundreds of mainly elderly people could be seen outside the city’s central Zhongshan Park in video clips posted on social media.
One video from Wuhan verified by Reuters showed pushing and shoving between protestors and uniformed security personnel. Reuters could not immediately verify images from Dalian and some others from Wuhan widely shared on social media.
The demonstrations come weeks ahead of China’s annual parliamentary gathering in early March.
The retirees were protesting local reforms including a recent cut to the monthly personal medical benefit allowance for retirees, from 260 yuan ($38) per month to 83 yuan, according to Wuhan residents. It followed a protest over the same issue last week in Wuhan.
Some sang songs including the Internationale, which is popular at protests in China. Others held phones aloft and recorded the event.
“This money is very little, but for old people it is life-saving money,” said Wuhan resident Zhang Hai, who did not attend Wednesday’s protest but said some of his friends did.
“People are not prosperous, so every little bit of money is hugely important,” he told Reuters.
While street protests over local issues are not unheard of in China, Wednesday’s events follow rare demonstrations in November in cities across the country over China’s tough zero-COVID policy, which Beijing abruptly abandoned in December.
The protests came as many local governments are fiscally strained after COVID curbs ravaged the economy and as three years of spending on coronavirus controls depleted funds.
In China’s health benefit system, some money goes to a personal medical allowance and other funds are pooled.
Wednesday’s protests in Wuhan and in Dalian in China’s northeast attracted a heavy security presence, according to videos and pictures on social media.
Local authorities in both cities did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Several Wuhan residents said that they believed the police knew about the protest in advance, as notices advising people not to attend had circulated on social media, including one seen by Reuters.
Several of Zhang’s friends who planned to attend were asked by residential authorities to sign a commitment “not to hold illegal protests, gatherings or demonstrations in public spaces” or post content about the protest, according to a copy of a notice seen by Reuters.
They were barred from leaving their homes by the police, Zhang added.
($1 = 6.8381 Chinese yuan renminbi)
(Reporting by Martin Quin Pollard, Laurie Chen, Yew Lun Tian; Additional reporting by the Beijing newsroom; Editing by Tony Munroe and Raissa Kasolowsky)