Chinese retirees take to streets over plan to cut health benefits

Hundreds of elderly people marched in cities of Wuhan and Dalian despite heavy security presence.

A crowd of people in winter clothing gathering beneath an underpass in Wuhan. Some have grey hair
Older people gather outside Zhongshan park, Wuhan, to protest against cuts in monthly medical benefits [Still image from social media video via Reuters]

Hundreds of retirees have taken to the streets of the Chinese cities of Wuhan and Dalian to protest against cuts to medical benefits, following rare demonstrations in November that led to the end of China’s controversial “zero-COVID” policy.

In the central city of Wuhan, videos posted online on Wednesday showed hundreds of mainly elderly people outside the city’s central Zhongshan Park.

One video from Wuhan, home to about 11 million people, that was verified by the Reuters news agency, showed protesters and uniformed security guards pushing and shoving each other.

In the northeastern city of Dalian, hundreds also took to the streets to protest the health insurance reforms, the AFP news agency said, citing a local witness.

“Give me back my medical insurance money,” they could be heard chanting in one video, which AFP geolocated to the city’s Renmin Square, where a number of local government buildings are situated.

Protests are rare in China but public anger does sometimes erupt, including widespread protests last year against the strict anti-pandemic measures that had been in force for nearly three years under the zero-COVID policy of President Xi Jinping.

The demonstrations come weeks ahead of China’s annual parliamentary gathering in early March.

In Wuhan, the city where COVID-19 was first detected in late 2019, police lined up in multiple rows, some locking arms, while hundreds of mostly elderly protesters spilt onto the main road, shouting complaints. In one video, the crowd began singing “The Internationale”, the communist anthem taught and sung in China since the Communist Party took power at the end of the civil war in 1949.

Older Chinese are angry at reforms to the country’s public health insurance system, which have reduced retirees’ monthly personal medical allowances from 260 yuan ($38) per month to 83 yuan ($12), according to Wuhan residents. There was also a demonstration in the city last week.

“This money is very little but to old people, it is life-saving money,” Wuhan resident Zhang Hai told Reuters. He 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 said.

The insurance reforms, gradually introduced since 2021, come as local government finances are strained as a result of the years-long commitment to zero-COVID and the collapse of some of the country’s biggest developers.

The protests in Wuhan have been exacerbated by the fact officials have been largely unaffected by the reforms, according to analysts.

“Civil servants and public institution staff are still entitled to subsidised 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.”

Source: News Agencies