On February 15, just weeks before the opening of the 14th National People’s Congress (NPC) legislative session in Beijing, thousands of Chinese retirees in the cities of Wuhan and Dalian held large demonstrations against proposed reforms to the public health insurance system. These followed an initial demonstration on February 8 in Wuhan, which was largely peaceful: demonstrators shouted slogans, sang “The Internationale,” and promised that they would return a week later if Wuhan authorities did not address their concerns about the reforms, which many retired workers fear will result in steep cuts to their medical benefits.
At The New York Times, Keith Bradsher, Daisuke Wakabayashi, and Claire Fu reported on the heightened police presence at the February 15 protests:
Video footage that circulated online indicated that large crowds gathered around Zhongshan Park in Wuhan, as the police tried to divide them by imposing barricades. When police officers tried to push the crowds back, older men and women refused to back off and shouted in officers’ faces. Some sang songs like “The Internationale,” an anthem employed by both the ruling Communist Party and by protesters, who have used it to suggest that the party has strayed from its ideological roots.
In Wuhan, seven witnesses to the protest and two other residents described what they called a large demonstration during the day. One witness said he had seen police officers roughly detain protesters and lead them away.
On Thursday, a couple hundred seniors gathered in groups at the same park at midday, angrily discussing their unhappiness with the health insurance policy changes. Security was tight, with plainclothes officers milling around, filming people as they talked. Nearly 100 uniformed officers stood behind crowd control barriers. [Source]
The Washington Post’s Christian Shepherd described the protest scenes in Dalian and Wuhan, where authorities suspended metro service to one station in an attempt to deter residents from joining the demonstrations:
As promised, [the protesters] filled central Zhongshan park and nearby streets Wednesday, with a second group gathering a couple of blocks away by the Wuhan Union Hospital.
This time, the authorities reacted more forcefully. In an apparent attempt to curb attendance, the city’s metro cars did not stop at the nearest station. Video showed shoving matches as police tried to contain the protests. Some tried to climb barriers to escape the melee but were pulled back by uniformed officers.
[…] At the same time as the standoff escalated in Wuhan, another demonstration was beginning in Dalian, a city of 7 million on China’s northeast coast, where hundreds of elderly wrapped up in puffy winter jackets descended on People’s Square to protest the same changes. [Source]
Emily Feng, reporting for NPR, noted just how rare such public protests are in China, and explained the reasons retirees were willing to risk coming out for the demonstrations:
To retirees, it looks like local governments are dipping into citizens’ personal health savings accounts to cover budget shortfalls.
[…] At large demonstrations this week, protesters argued that transferring funds from their accounts would be tantamount to theft of private property.
“This is our money, earned through blood and sweat,” one retiree from the central city of Wuhan said in a recorded phone call with the provincial medical insurance authorities, that has been widely shared online. “I complain because I believe in our government and our Communist Party to find a path forward to solve this.” [Source]
In Wuhan, retired residents estimated that the insurance reforms would reduce their monthly personal medical allowances from 260 yuan ($38) per month to 83 yuan ($12). Many cash-strapped local governments—including Guangdong, Shaanxi and Hunan provinces—have proposed similar insurance reforms. Reuters reported that Chinese provinces, already facing slowing economic growth and revenues, “spent at least 352 billion yuan ($51.6 billion) on COVID-19 containment in 2022,” adding to the strain.
Reporting for The Financial Times, Sun Yu described retirees’ worries about higher deductibles and limited coverage, and attempts by local governments to assuage their concerns:
The Wuhan city government said last year that the changes would “effectively” ease people’s healthcare burdens.
But the protesters argue that the new outpatient insurance comes with a high deductible and low coverage, meaning it will cost them more to see a doctor.
“This is robbery,” said a protester in Wuhan. “The government wants to use my money to subsidise others without my permission.”
[…] Dozens of cities have also issued statements in recent days stressing the reforms’ benefits. [Source]
Reports of the protests in Wuhan and Dalian have been heavily censored online. A China Digital Times analysis found that many related hashtags had been banned on Weibo, and attempts to search for them yielded error messages such as “Based on relevant laws, regulations, and policies, this topic cannot be displayed” or “Sorry, no relevant results were found.” The banned hashtags include #Wuhan Medical Insurance (#武汉医保), #Wuhan Zhongshan Park (#武汉中山公园), #Wuhan Medical Insurance Reform (#武汉医保改革), #Wuhan Medical Insurance Reform Major Adjustment (#武汉医保改革重大调整), and #Is There a Compensation Plan for Shrinking Balances in Medical Insurance Personal Accounts? (#医保个人账户缩水能不能有补偿方案).
This strict censorship has not prevented netizens from expressing support for the recent protests, which have been led primarily by senior citizens and retirees. Some have even dubbed them the “White Hair Movement” (白发运动, Baifa Yundong), in a nod to the term “White Paper Movement” (白纸运动, Baizhi Yundong), which referred to the blank white sheets of paper held up by protesters during last autumn’s nationwide demonstrations against draconian COVID controls and political repression.
CDT Chinese editors compiled and archived some online comments, a selection of which are translated below, about the proposed insurance reforms and the February 15 protest in Wuhan:
trailblazer_L：#Wuhan Zhongshan Park, #10 Questions About the Chemical Pollution Incident in Ohio, #10 Questions About the Mass Shooting Incident in the U.S., #10 Questions About the Hypocrisy of American Democracy, but when I look for news from China … silence.
韩若冰与小天使：When I searched for Wuhan’s Zhongshan Park or information about medical system reform, I found that many Weibo articles have been deleted, or blocked, or suppressed by the powers above. It’s difficult, really difficult. And yet those grannies and grandpas are so brave, much braver than me …
爬啊爬啊过山河：#Medical Insurance Coverage (#医保报权) Today, many grandfathers and grandmothers gathered in Wuhan’s Zhongshan Park. In standing up for their rights, they defended the rights of everyone. What’s this nonsense about medical insurance reform? It’s just that the government has no money, so they’re trying to put the squeeze on ordinary citizens, but they’re trying to dress it up as “reform” so we humble chives don’t get too angry.
断了的弦—-：The grandmas and grandpas were as good as their word. They said they’d converge on Wuhan’s Zhongshan Park on the 15th, and they did. Awesome. [Chinese]
A Weibo article about insurance reform by iFeng.com also drew a large number of comments, many of them negative, about the proposed changes. Before the comments section was eventually disabled, CDT Chinese editors archived some of the responses:
司马3忌：”Why do we still encounter such great resistance [to proposed insurance reforms]?” This is disguised as some deep philosophical question, but the writer already knows the answer. Reforms that affect people’s livelihoods usually involve sacrificing the interests of those at the bottom rungs of society, and that’s why resistance is inevitable.
种豆得瓜谢不谦：This medical insurance reform must be directly motivated by the need to pay for the last few years of mass nucleic acid testing, right?
HJY就是666：Medical insurance subsidies have shrunk, the retirement age has been raised, but there’s still plenty of cash to support the Belt and Road Initiative. Instead of showing off your muscles, how about first improving people’s livelihoods? [Chinese]