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Retirees took the streets in 2 Chinese cities to protest health care changes

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Crowds of retired folks have recently taken to the streets of two Chinese cities in rare mass protests. You might remember when thousands of young people protested the government's "zero-COVID" policy last November. This week, it's Chinese pensioners. They're demonstrating against changes to their state health care plans. And the unrest reflects frustration with public health resources for the country's aging population. NPR's Emily Feng reports.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Singing in Chinese).

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: They stood on the west bank of the Yangtze River and sang "The Internationale," an anthem closely associated with global socialist movements. This was the second time hundreds of retirees gathered in Wuhan this month, the city where COVID-19 was first discovered in humans. Already, last week, hundreds more protested when new rules were implemented that take away some of their employer-sponsored health savings accounts and transfer them into a public insurance fund.

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UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Shouting in Chinese).

FENG: "Give us our money back," protesters shout in another city this week - the port city of Dalian in the northeast. Videos from that protest show at least hundreds more standing in front of the city government office, demanding the mayor come out. These rare acts of discontent come during a tough economic time. China spent at least $50 billion on COVID-19 containment, like testing and quarantine facilities, in the last year alone. Many local hospitals are already warning their staff of tight budgets. To retirees, it looks like the governments are covering those shortfalls in public health resources with funds from personal health savings accounts.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: (Chanting in Chinese).

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in Chinese).

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: (Chanting in Chinese).

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in Chinese).

FENG: The Wuhan government said on Saturday that transferring the funds frees up money that will subsidize doctors' visits for more people, especially those with less money. But some outpatient costs, like certain medicines, will be reimbursed less. That's why this week, at least hundreds of elderly pensioners went head-to-head with police in Wuhan. Here, you can hear them pushing against a wall of police officers in a central park. And while this policy change is being rolled out nationwide, it's Wuhan and Dalian that have seen the most unrest because they're among the most indebted local governments - financially spent after nearly three years of bankrolling COVID controls that were suddenly dropped last December.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Chinese).

FENG: "Those funds are our money, earned through blood and sweat. It's my private property you're taking away," admonishes one Wuhan retiree.

She recorded this phone call with a state insurance employee demanding that the government return funds to their personal accounts and threatening to camp out in front of their office if not.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Chinese).

FENG: "I wouldn't dare to speak out like this if I didn't believe in the government and the Communist Party to find a solution," she says - a subtle dig at the state's nominally socialist platform. So far, Wuhan's government says it's not budging. But longer term, these peaceful demonstrations hint at a much more fundamental issue. China's society is aging fast. That's strained welfare systems like public health insurance, yet local governments have other debts to pay. And so they're turning to their citizens first to bridge the gap. Emily Feng, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF KAYTRANADA'S "BUS RIDE (FEAT. KARRIEM RIGGINS AND RIVER TIBER)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.
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