China cracks down on ‘zero covid’ protests, eases some pandemic measures

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Small protests against China’s strict ‘zero covid’ policy took place in several cities on Monday evening as citizens defied a police crackdown and threats of retaliation, with Beijing blaming ‘foreign forces’ even as authorities have decided to vaccinate more elderly people and to relax certain distancing measures.

From Hangzhou in the east to Kunming in the southwest and Beijing in the north, groups of people demonstrated holding up blank paper – a state censorship symbol — in solidarity with protesters in Shanghai, the first major city where recent rallies against zero-covid measures took place.

The protests were mainly vehicles to let off steam on the lockdowns and commemorate the people who had died in a fire in the far northwest region of Xinjiang last week. Many Chinese believe the zero-covid policy made the tragedy worse by slowing down first responders, a claim authorities deny. Frustrations over political oppression have also crept in, with some calling for the ousting of the ruling Communist Party and President Xi Jinping.

Monday night’s protests were relatively small, possibly involving dozens of protesters. Rallies against alleged local government malfeasance are also not uncommon in China – but prolonged nationwide protests against central authorities are extremely unusual. Videos of the moments circulated widely online, even as censors worked to cut off access.

Local security officials, who seemed caught off guard when protests began over the weekend, seemed more proactive in trying to quell Monday’s protests. In Hangzhou, home to tech giants including Alibaba, police were shown in a widely circulated video cornering a bespectacled young man and trying to snatch a bouquet of chrysanthemums from him, a symbol of mourning.

“I can’t bring flowers to West Lake?” the man asked officers, referring to a popular destination where some had gathered to demand the lifting of strict coronavirus measures. Security forces attempted to take the man away by force but were stopped by passers-by. The man was eventually released.

Another clip shows a woman being forcibly taken away by police outside an upscale shopping mall in Hangzhou. As she cried out for help, a crowd of perhaps dozens gathered, some shouting, “Free her.” Authorities ordered the crowd to disperse, citing social distancing protocols.

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The Washington Post was unable to immediately independently verify the authenticity of the two clips. But a metro station near West Lake was closed on Monday evening, according to Niu, a resident who spoke out on the condition that only her surname be used for fear of government reprisals.

Police have also stepped up patrols around the lake and carried out identity checks on people in the area, she said. “There were a lot of police cars parked around the lake,” she said. “I worry about the people who were taken away; they had the courage to speak their minds and did nothing wrong.

In a possible sign that China may eventually relax its zero-covid policy, which includes long lockdowns, regular mass testing and placing close contacts of coronavirus patients in centralized quarantine facilities, some local governments have begun to ease restrictions this week.

Public transport in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang where the deadly fire occurred, partially restarted on Monday, while delivery services resumed on Tuesday. A district in Guangzhou’s economic hub, where there had recently been a surge of covid infections, announced on Monday that it would exempt the elderly, students and people who work from home from mass testing unless they do not need to enter public places.

In Beijing, officials have pledged not to lock down residential buildings for more than 24 hours at a stretch. And the southwestern metropolis of Chengdu has canceled construction of a massive facility meant to house more than 10,000 people, a sign that centralized mass quarantine may be on the way out.

Beijing’s coronavirus policies have kept the country’s death rate low by international standards, but medical experts are increasingly questioning the sustainability of these measures amid the spread of more transmissible versions of the omicron variant. China said on Tuesday it had registered more than 38,500 infections in the past day – an extremely high number by the country’s standards.

China said last month it would reduce the burden of covid measures on daily life, but central authorities have not offered a roadmap, and local authorities are still expected to rapidly curb widespread transmission of cases.

Beijing’s ability to significantly drop restrictions is hampered by low vaccination rates among the elderly and its limited capacity for emergency care. Only two-thirds of Chinese citizens over the age of 80 have received two doses of a vaccine, and only 40% of this age group have received a booster shot.

National health officials said on Tuesday they would focus efforts on encouraging China’s seniors to receive booster doses, with those over 80 a priority. Global health experts see it as a key step towards abandoning strict controls, although vaccine hesitancy is high among the elderly and Beijing has yet to announce a mandate.

Local governments should use advanced data analysis to identify seniors who should be vaccinated and obtain compelling reasons for an exemption if they refuse, according to a statement from the National Health Commission on Tuesday.

“The likelihood of management… ending zero-covid in response to the protests is low, both because of the precedent it would set and because ceasing efforts to contain the virus now would quickly lead to an overflow of the security system. health,” Mark Williams, chief Asia economist at Capital Economics, a consultancy, wrote in a Monday research note.

He added that minor concessions, such as changing quarantine rules, were possible.

“We have always studied and made adjustments to protect people’s interests as much as possible and reduce the impact [of zero covid] on China’s economic and social development,” Mi Feng, spokesperson for the National Health Commission, said at a press conference on Tuesday.

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Recent small signs of potential compromise have coincided with large-scale censorship and fears that a harsher crackdown is on the way. There had been online discussions of the protests over the weekend, but censors were quicker to ban accounts and clean up posts, music videos and hashtags from major social media platforms early in the week. the week. The phrase “blank paper” was censored after students held up empty sheets to protest against speech restrictions.

Beijing “will not allow a protest movement to occupy the streets of China for a while. If the protests continue, a crackdown is very likely,” wrote Williams, the economist.

On Monday, authorities in Shanghai erected barricades and deployed police to guard downtown intersections where protests had taken place. On a freezing Monday night in Beijing, there was a heavy police presence near two sites where protests took place over the weekend.

Nationalist commentators, without presenting evidence, accused the protesters of colluding with hostile foreign forces.

“Whenever there are tragedies in China, [the West] will go to any lengths to fan the flames and incite the Chinese to riot,” popular nationalist commentator Ming Jinwei wrote in an article Monday that warned of a potential color revolution. The term refers to massive anti-regime protests such as Ukraine’s Orange Revolution, which many officials in Moscow and Beijing say were Western-led.

“They are looking at the problems of Chinese society with a magnifying glass and would turn every fire, every traffic accident into an attack” on the Chinese political system, he said.

Chinese officials have not directly acknowledged the protests, although Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told a Monday briefing that there was no need to worry about the safety of the protesters. residents in China. He also accused human rights activists in exile, who have stepped up their criticism of Beijing in recent days, of having “ulterior motives”.

When asked if China would consider ending the zero-covid policy following widespread protests, Zhao said Beijing would continue to fight the pandemic with “optimized” measures in line with existing policy and under the leadership of the Communist Party.

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