Prominent Chinese commentator Hu Xijin said on Sunday that as China ponders its COVID-19 policies, epidemic experts need to speak out and China ought to conduct comprehensive research and make any studies transparent to the public.
Hu's unusual call on Chinese social media for candour and transparency earned him 34,000 likes on the popular Twitter-like microblog Weibo, as well as frank responses from netizens in a normally tightly policed internet quick to censor voices deemed a risk to social stability.
China's top leaders warned in May amid the COVID lockdown of Shanghai and widespread restrictions in the Chinese capital Beijing that they would fight any comment or action that distorted, doubted or repudiated the country's COVID policies.
"About the future, China needs very rational research and calculations," said Hu, former editor-in-chief of nationalist state tabloid Global Times.
"Experts must speak out, and the country should organise comprehensive studies and make them transparent to the public: what are the pros and cons for our common people, and what are the overall pros and cons for the country?"
China has significantly tightened its COVID-19 policies this year to contain the spread of the highly transmissible Omicron variant even as its death toll since the pandemic began remains low - around 5,226 as of Saturday - and as many other countries let go of tough restrictions and learn to live with the coronavirus.
"Oppose excessive epidemic prevention," one Weibo user wrote in response to Hu's post.
In the name of putting the lives of people first, entire cities have been subjected to varying degrees of lockdown, while the infected or suspected cases are confined in facilities or at home, and local populations are required to take a PCR test every two to three days or be barred from public amenities and spaces.
"I don't mind being infected, but I fear you can't help but stop me from moving freely," another Weibo user said.
Even Chinese-controlled Hong Kong is moving to scrap its controversial COVID-19 hotel quarantine policy for all arrivals, more than 2 1/2 years after it was first implemented, and just weeks ahead of a major Communist Party congress in Beijing next month when President Xi Jinping is expected to secure a precedent-breaking third term as China's leader.
Macau is also planning to reopen its borders to mainland tour groups in November, the Chinese special administrative region surprised with an announcement on Saturday.
"The people must trust the state, but the state must also trust the understanding of the people," Hu said.