China begins inquiries into weekend Covid-19 protests

Police officers blocking a street where protests had taken place the night before, in Shanghai, on Nov 27, 2022. PHOTO: NYTIMES

BEIJING – Chinese authorities have begun inquiries into some of the people who gathered at weekend protests against Covid-19 curbs, people who were at the Beijing demonstrations told Reuters, as police remained out in numbers on the city’s streets.

Two protesters told Reuters that callers identifying themselves as Beijing police officers asked them to report to a police station on Tuesday with written accounts of their activities on Sunday night. A student also said they were asked by their college if they had been in an area where a protest happened and to provide a written account.

“We are all desperately deleting our chat history,” said another person who witnessed the Beijing protest and declined to be identified. The person said police asked how they heard about the protest and what was their motive for going.

It was not clear how authorities identified the people they wanted to question about their participation in the protests, and it was also not clear how many such people the authorities aimed to question.

Beijing’s Public Security Bureau did not respond to a request for comment. A spokesman for China’s foreign ministry said rights and freedoms must be exercised within the framework of the law.

Simmering discontent with Covid-19 prevention policies three years into the pandemic ignited into broader protests in cities thousands of miles apart over the weekend.

Mainland China’s biggest wave of civil disobedience since President Xi Jinping took power a decade ago comes as the number of Covid-19 cases hit record highs daily and large parts of several cities face new lockdowns.

A health official said complaints about Covid-19 controls were mainly about their inflexible implementation.

“The problems highlighted by the public are not aimed at the epidemic prevention and control itself, but focus on simplifying prevention and control measures,” Mr Cheng Youquan told reporters, adding that authorities would address urgent concerns.

Covid-19 in China keeps spreading despite the efforts of most of its 1.4 billion people to prevent transmission by adhering to a Zero-Covid policy of eradicating all outbreaks and maintaining tight border controls.

The lockdowns have exacerbated one of the sharpest slowdowns in growth China has suffered in decades, disrupting global supply chains and roiling financial markets.

Chinese stocks and the yuan rallied as investors bet signs of civil discontent could prompt an easing of the curbs and cheered a relaxation of regulations on developer fundraising.

China’s bluechip index CSI300 rose 3 per cent for its best session in three weeks, the Shanghai Composite Index gained 2.3 per cent to hit a two-month high and Hong Kong’s Hang Seng shot up by 5 per cent.

Plans to boost the vaccination rate among the elderly also helped lift market sentiment.

‘Really scary’

In Hangzhou, the capital of the eastern province of Zhejiang, videos on social media which Reuters could not independently verify showed hundreds of police occupying a large square on Monday night, preventing people from congregating.

One video showed police, surrounded by a small crowd of people holding smartphones, making an arrest while others tried to pull back the person being detained.

Hangzhou police did not immediately reply to a request for comment.

In Shanghai and Beijing, police were patrolling areas where some groups on the Telegram messaging service had suggested people gather again. The police presence on Monday evening and night ensured no gatherings took place.

Protesters during a rally for the Urumqi fire victims as well as a protest against harsh Covid-19 restrictions in Beijing on Nov 28, 2022. PHOTO: AFP

“The large number of police, it’s really scary,” said Beijing resident Philip Qin, 22, who witnessed the protests on Sunday.

Residents said police have been asking people passing through those areas for their phones to check if they had virtual private networks (VPNs) and the Telegram app, which has been used by protesters, residents said. VPNs are illegal for most people in China, while the Telegram app is blocked from China’s Internet.

A busload of demonstrators was taken away by police during Sunday night protests in Shanghai.

A fire last week in the western city of Urumqi that authorities said killed 10 people appears to have been the spark for the wave of protests in other cities.

Some Internet users said Covid-19 lockdown measures hampered the effort to rescue people in the burning building. Officials have denied that.

Students from several colleges in the Sichuan province who took part in campus memorials for the victims have been asked by their teachers who the main organiser was, said a person who attended one in Chengdu, the province’s capital.

‘Foreign forces’

Prominent nationalist bloggers with millions of followers, such as Mr Ren Yi, the grandson of Communist Party leader Ren Zhongyi, and Yu Li, who uses the pen name of Sima Nan, wrote this week that the protests were fomented by “foreign forces”.

“What is their purpose? On one hand it is to intensify internal conflicts. On the other hand, it is to see if they can completely politicise the issues around our epidemic prevention and health policies,” Mr Ren wrote in his “Chairman Rabbit” blog.

Chinese authorities regularly warn that “foreign forces” are endangering national security and have accused them for stirring the 2019 pro-democracy Hong Kong protests.

“Blaming it on foreign forces is a standard tactic,” said Associate Professor Alfred Wu at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. “This is how the party shirks responsibility and rallies people behind it.”

Officials say China’s Covid-19 policies have kept the death toll in the thousands, avoiding the millions of deaths elsewhere.

Many analysts say easing the policy could lead to widespread illness and deaths, overwhelming hospitals. A strong push on vaccinating the elderly is required before China could even contemplate re-opening, they say.

In a Tuesday editorial that did not mention the protests, the People’s Daily, the Communist Party’s official newspaper, urged citizens to “unswervingly implement” Zero Covid policies, which put people’s “lives first” , saying victory would come through “perseverance through thousands of hardships”.

“The harder it is, the more you have to grit your teeth,” it said. REUTERS.

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