WASHINGTON – Protesters in China opposing Covid-19 lockdowns should not be physically harmed or intimidated, White House national security spokesperson John Kirby said on Tuesday.
“We don’t want to see protesters physically harmed, intimidated or coerced in any way. That’s what peaceful protest is all about, and that’s what we have continued to stand up for, whether it’s in China or Iran or elsewhere around the world,” he told CNN.
In a separate forum, the US envoy to Beijing Nicholas Burns said China should not interfere with the “extraordinary” protests.
“We believe that Chinese people have a right to protest peacefully, they have a right to make their views known,” Mr Burns told the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. “That’s a fundamental right around the world – it should be – and that right should not be hindered with, and it shouldn’t be interfered with.”
It is hard to say if the protests will have any long-term impact, he said, noting that it was a “very critical time” for China, given a spike in Covid-19 infections in major cities and across China.
The Chinese authorities have been seeking out some who gathered at protests over the weekend, people who were at the Beijing demonstrations told Reuters.
China’s foreign ministry has said rights and freedoms must be exercised within the framework of the law.
Mr Burns said the police response in some cases has been “heavy-handed,” but otherwise refrained from criticising President Xi Jinping’s handling of the issue.
“We just have to see how this plays out,” he said. “It’s obviously a very important event for the people of China, and we’re watching it, of course, with great care and great attention.”
Mr Burns’ relatively muted comments highlight the balancing act US officials have sought to maintain toward the protests, which have also seen demonstrators calling for greater political freedom – and even, in some cases, for Mr Xi to step down. One fear is that China could portray any expression of support for the protests as evidence that the US is somehow fomenting them.
China’s top body in charge of police and public security pledged late on Tuesday to crack down on “hostile forces” and their “sabotage”, without being specific, and vowed that “illegal and criminal acts that disrupt social order” won’t be tolerated.
The protests rocked several Chinese cities over the weekend, with demonstrators criticising Mr Xi and his zero-Covid policy of lockdowns and mandatory quarantines. The risky show of defiance – coming after a deadly fire in the western city of Urumqi where protesters blamed fatalities on Covid-19 containment – rattled the authorities, who blanketed cities with a heavy police presence on Monday to quell more unrest.
The rallies occurred less than two weeks after US President Joe Biden cooled tensions by meeting Mr Xi on the sidelines of the Group of 20 meeting in Bali, Indonesia, the first meeting of the two men as leaders of the world’s two largest economies. BLOOMBERG, REUTERS