Less lethal Omicron opens way for fewer COVID restrictions: Chinese president

Chinese President Xi Jinping attends the opening ceremony of the 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China on 16 October, 2022File photo

Chinese President Xi Jinping blamed mass protests in Chinese cities on youth frustrated by years of the COVID-19 pandemic, but said the now dominant Omicron variant of the virus paved the way for fewer restrictions, European Union officials said.

The senior EU officials, who asked not to be named, recounted the main points of a visit to Beijing by European Council President Charles Michel, who met Xi along with other senior EU officials on Thursday.

The handling of the COVID pandemic and the protests against pandemic restrictions in recent days across more than 20 Chinese cities were among the topics raised by the EU.

"The response we got from the president was an explanation why there were protests -- explaining that after three years of COVID he had an issue, because people were frustrated, it was mainly students or teenagers," one senior EU official said.

"I think that as a way out ... President Xi said that now COVID in China was mainly Omicron. The Delta variant before was much more lethal and Omicron was less lethal, which opened the way for more openness with the restrictions - what we have already seen in some regions," the EU official said.

EU officials said Michel told Xi that in Europe the focus of the first phase of the pandemic was very much on isolation, quarantine and testing, but it later shifted to vaccination.

"My sense was that this was something that was informative and I had a feeling that China on its side would be increasingly looking to encourage its citizens to be vaccinated, to follow a tiny bit the European experience," a second EU official said.

He added that Xi told the EU delegation that vaccination rates in China were high except for among the elderly, which was a challenge that caused the COVID restrictions.