The protests were largely cathartic about the lockdown and commemorating those killed in a fire last week in the remote northwestern region of Xinjiang. Many Chinese believe the zero-coronavirus policy exacerbated the tragedy by slowing down first responders, an allegation authorities have denied. Discontent over political repression has also crept in, with some calling for the ouster of the ruling Communist Party and President Xi Jinping.
Monday night’s demonstration was relatively small and likely involved dozens of protesters. Rallies against local government malfeasance are also common in China — but prolonged, nationwide protests against the central government are extremely rare. Video of these moments circulated widely online, despite efforts by censors to cut off access.
Local security officials appeared caught off guard when demonstrations began over the weekend, but appeared to be more active in trying to suppress Monday’s protests. In Hangzhou, home to tech giants including Alibaba, a widely circulated video showed police besieging a bespectacled young man and trying to wrest a mourning bouquet of chrysanthemums from him.
“Can’t I take some flowers to West Lake?” the man asked officials, referring to a popular destination where some people have gathered to demand that strict coronavirus measures be lifted. Security forces tried to forcibly remove the man but were stopped by onlookers. The man was eventually released.
Another video showed a woman being forcibly taken away by police in front of an upscale shopping mall in Hangzhou. As she screamed for help, dozens of people gathered, with some yelling: “Let her go.” Authorities ordered the crowd to disperse, citing social distancing protocols.
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The Post could not immediately independently verify the authenticity of the two clips. But a subway station near West Lake was closed Monday night, and Niu, a resident, said she asked to use only her surname for fear of government reprisals.
Police also stepped up patrols around the lake and conducted identity checks on people in the area, she said. “There are a lot of police cars parked by the lake,” she said. “I worry about those who were taken; they were brave enough to speak their minds and did nothing wrong.”
Some local governments began easing restrictions this week, in a possible sign that China may finally relax its zero-infection policy, which includes prolonged lockdowns, regular mass testing and placing close contacts of coronavirus patients in centralized isolation facilities.
Public transport in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang where the deadly fire raged, partially restarted on Monday, while delivery services resumed on Tuesday. An area in the economic hub of Guangzhou, which has recently seen a large number of coronavirus cases, announced on Monday that it would exempt the elderly, students and those working from home from mass testing unless they need to enter public places.
In Beijing, officials have pledged to keep residential buildings closed for no more than 24 hours at a time. The southwestern metropolis of Chengdu canceled construction on a large facility designed to accommodate more than 10,000 people, suggesting that mass quarantines may be coming to an end.
Beijing’s anti-coronavirus policies have kept the country’s death rate low by international standards, but medical experts are increasingly questioning the sustainability of such measures as more transmissible omicron variants spread. China said on Tuesday that it had recorded more than 38,500 infections in the past day – an extremely high number by the country’s standards.
China said last month it would ease the burden of COVID-19 measures on daily life, but the central government has offered no road map and local officials are still expected to quickly contain the widespread spread of cases.
Beijing’s ability to meaningfully waive restrictions has been 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 received two doses of the vaccine, and only 40% of that age group received a booster shot.
State health officials said on Tuesday they would focus on encouraging booster shots among older Chinese, with priority given to those over 80. Global health experts see it as a crucial step in abandoning strict controls, even as older people hesitate to vaccinate and Beijing has yet to announce mandatory requirements.
According to a statement from the National Health Commission on Tuesday, local governments should use advanced data analysis to identify senior citizens who should be vaccinated and obtain convincing reasons for exemption if they refuse to be vaccinated.
“It is highly unlikely that leadership … will respond to the protests with zero coronavirus, both because it would set a precedent and because halting efforts to contain the virus now would quickly overwhelm the healthcare system,” wrote Mark, a consultancy firm. Williams, chief Asia economist at Economics, said in a research note on Monday.
He added that small concessions could be made, such as adjusting quarantine rules.
“We have been researching and adjusting to protect people’s interests as much as possible and reduce the impact [of zero covid] National Health Commission spokesman Mi Feng said at a news conference on Tuesday.
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The recent small signs of a potential compromise coincide with widespread scrutiny and fears of a tougher crackdown on the horizon. There was some online discussion of the protests over the weekend, but as the week began, censors banned accounts and removed posts, video clips and hashtags on major social media platforms at an even faster pace. The term “blank paper” has come under scrutiny after students held up blank sheets to protest restrictions on speech.
Beijing will “not allow the protest movement to occupy the streets of China for any length of time. If the protests continue, crackdown is likely,” economist Williams wrote.
On Monday, Shanghai authorities erected roadblocks and deployed police to guard intersections in the city center where protests took place. On a chilly Monday night in Beijing, there was a heavy police presence near two sites where demonstrations had been held over the weekend.
Nationalist commentators accused the protesters of colluding with foreign hostile forces without showing evidence.
“Whenever some tragedy happens in China, [the West] will fan the flames all the way and incite the Chinese people to create riots,” Ming Jinwei, a popular nationalist commentator, wrote in a post warning of potential color revolutions on Monday. The term refers to large-scale anti-regime protests such as The Orange Revolution in Ukraine, which many officials in Moscow and Beijing say is directed by the West.
He said, “They use a magnifying glass to examine the problems of Chinese society, turning every fire and every traffic accident into an attack” on China’s political system.
Chinese officials did not directly acknowledge the demonstrations, although Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said at a news conference on Monday that there was no need to worry about the safety of Chinese residents. He also accused exiled human rights activists of “ulterior motives” who have stepped up their criticism of Beijing in recent days.
Asked whether China would consider ending its zero-coronavirus policy after widespread protests, Zhao said Beijing would continue to fight the pandemic with “optimized” measures based on existing policies and under the leadership of the Communist Party.