Thousands of pensioners protest in Wuhan against cuts in medical services

3 Min
Thousands of pensioners protest in Wuhan against cuts in medical services

Thousands of people protested on Wednesday February 8, 2023, in front of the municipal government offices in the central Chinese city of Wuhan against significant cuts in their medical services, according to residents and video footage posted on social media, says a VAA report.

Video clips uploaded to social media showed a large crowd of elderly people in raincoats and umbrellas gathering in rainy weather in a public square outside the gates of the city government compound, while police in high-visibility vests bandaged their arms to prevent them from approaching the gates.

A resident of Wuhan, the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic, surnamed Zhang, said both uniformed and plainclothes police were out in large numbers at the protest, with several official buses parked at the scene.

“There were a lot of police officers there protecting [the city government], but that’s a matter of public opinion,” he said.

The protest came after warnings from the central government in Beijing that it will not bail out financially troubled local governments whose coffers have been depleted by President Xi Jinping’s three-year zero-COVID policy that ended in December.

“This country is in trouble, and they haven’t increased health insurance payments — how can they reduce them?” Zhang said. “How are people supposed to cope?”

“The ordinary people first”

He said authorities knew the protest was coming and held a “stability maintenance” meeting at City Hall to address the issue.

“Retirees are demanding an explanation from the government as to why their medical benefits have been cut from 260 yuan ($38) per month to less than 100 yuan ($15),” reads a subtitle to one of the videos.

“If they don’t get a response from the government, they will hold an even bigger rally,” the text reads.

“The cuts always come first for normal people, huh,” comments one voice in the same video. “Why aren’t the [benefits] of officials being cut? That’s disgusting!”

“This doesn’t look like a scene created by U.S. forces or foreign forces or whatever,” one person commented on one of the video clips. “That’s a matter for the government alone.”

“They all talk about serving people, but who are they really working for? There are more than a million retirees in Wuhan, and today there are thousands, possibly more than 10,000.”

Retired steelworkers

One resident, who gave only the surname Gao for fear of reprisals, said the majority of protesters were retired workers at the Wuhan Iron and Steel Plant, some from other state-owned enterprises.

“They are demanding that their medical services be returned to the original level of 260.93 yuan per month,” Gao said. “Many people have cut theirs to 88 yuan or 82 yuan.”

“They are calling on the government to give them a public response [today]… and if they don’t, they will hold a rally in Zhongshan Park on February 15 to protect rights,” he said.

The payments are intended to cover the cost of repeated prescriptions in retirement and come at a time of skyrocketing health care costs that have made medical treatment unaffordable for many in retirement, Gao said.

“There are nearly 2 million retirees in Wuhan,” he said.

A retiree from Wuhan’s Jiang’an district, who only gave his surname Chen, said the cuts had affected large numbers of people and further public protests were likely.

“Anyone with a vested interest will leave,” Chen said, adding that he had planned to leave but held back after receiving a warning from his local police station.

“People in the community where I live contacted me last night and asked me to go with them,” Chen said. “But I was warned by the police.”

“I told them I really wanted to leave, so a policeman drove me, but I was only allowed to watch from a distance,” he said.

A resident of Jiang’an County, who gave only the surname Pang, said some people had also protested major cuts in funeral expenses, from 70,000 yuan ($10,300) to just 30,000 yuan ($4,400) per person.

“It was not only retirees from Wuhan Iron and Steel, but also many other retirees from different industries and people whose homes had been [violently] demolished,” she said.

Repeated calls to the offices of the city administration and to the Department of Letters and Visits [complaints] went unanswered on Wednesday during office hours.

Destroying people who speak up

China’s army of petitioners, who flood the official grievance departments of the ruling Communist Party of China on a daily basis, often report being held, beaten, or otherwise harassed in unofficial “black prisons” if they persist in a complaint beyond the initial rejection at the local level.

They are often forcibly escorted home by “interceptors” sent by their local governments to prevent negative reports from reaching the ears of higher authorities.

They are then monitored, harassed and possibly imprisoned on criminal charges.

People in China often challenge those in power, despite nationwide measures aimed at nipping popular protests in the bud, the US-based think tank Freedom House reported in November 2022.

Despite ubiquitous surveillance, a neighborhood-level “grid” system of law enforcement, and a targeted “stability preservation system” aimed at controlling critics of the government before taking action, the group identified hundreds of incidents of public protest between June and September 2022 alone.

— Source: Voices Against Autocracy, VAA