HONG KONG (AP) – With police out in force, there was no word of further protests against strict government anti-pandemic measures Tuesday in Beijing as temperatures dipped well below freezing. Shanghai, Nanjing and other cities where online calls for gatherings had been issued were also reportedly quiet.
Rallies against China’s unusually strict anti-virus measures spread to several cities over the weekend in the biggest show of opposition to the ruling Communist Party for decades. Authorities eased some rules, apparently to try to quell public anger, but the government showed no sign of backing down on its larger coronavirus strategy, and analysts expect authorities to quickly quiet down the dissent.
Police were investigating conducting random checks of phones at the People’s Square subway station in Shanghai on Monday night, an eyewitness said. The person declined to give his name for fear of retaliation as he was on his way to a planned protest near the station, which he did not find.
In Hong Kong on Monday, about 50 mainland students at the Chinese University of Hong Kong chanted and some lit candles in a show of support for those in mainland cities demonstrating against restrictions that have confined millions to their homes. The students hid their faces to avoid official retaliation and shouted, “No PCR tests but freedom!” and “oppose dictatorship, don’t be slaves!”
The rally and a similar one elsewhere in Hong Kong were the biggest protests there in more than a year under rules introduced to crush a pro-democracy movement in the territory, which is Chinese but has a separate legal system from the mainland.
“I’ve wanted to speak out for a long time, but I didn’t get the chance,” said James Cai, a 29-year-old from Shanghai, who attended a protest in Hong Kong and held up a piece of white paper. a symbol of defiance against the ruling party’s pervasive censorship. “If the people on the mainland can’t take it anymore, neither can I.”
It was not clear how many people have been detained since protests began on the mainland on Friday, sparked by anger over the death of 10 people in a fire in the northwestern city of Urumqi. That led to angry online questions about whether firefighters or victims trying to escape were blocked by locked doors or other anti-virus controls. Authorities denied it, but the incident became a target of public frustration over the controls.
Without mentioning the protests, criticism of Xi or the fire, some local authorities eased restrictions on Monday.
The Beijing city government announced it would no longer erect gates to block access to apartment complexes where infections are found.
“Passengers must remain ready for medical transport, emergency escapes and rescues,” said Wang Daguang, a city official in charge of epidemic control, according to the official China News Service.
Guangzhou, a manufacturing and trading center that is the biggest hot spot in China’s latest wave of infections, announced that some residents will no longer be required to undergo mass testing.
The U.S. Embassy advised citizens to prepare for all eventualities, saying Ambassador Nicholas Burns and other U.S. diplomats “have regularly raised our concerns about many of these issues directly.”
“We encourage all US citizens to keep a 14-day supply of medicine, bottled water and food for yourself and all members of your household,” the embassy said in a statement Monday.
In Washington, White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby “obviously there are people in China who – who have – have concerns about it,” referring to the shutdowns.
“And they’re protesting it, and we think they should be able to do it peacefully,” Kirby said at a Monday briefing.
Urumqi, where the fire broke out, and another city in the northwestern Xinjiang region announced that markets and other businesses in areas considered to be at low risk of infection would reopen this week and public bus service would resume.
“Zero COVID,” which aims to isolate any infected person, has helped keep China’s case rate lower than that of the United States and other major countries. But tolerance of the measures has been flagged as people in some areas have been confined to their homes for up to four months and say they lack reliable access to food and medical supplies.
The ruling party promised last month to reduce disruptions by changing quarantine and other rules known as “20 guidelines.” But an increase in infections has prompted cities to tighten controls.
On Tuesday, the number of daily cases fell slightly to 38,421 after setting new records in recent days. Of those, 34,860 were among people who did not show symptoms.
The ruling party’s People’s Daily newspaper called for its anti-virus strategy to be implemented effectively, indicating that Xi’s government has no plans to change course.
“The facts have fully proven that each version of the prevention and control plan has passed the test of practice,” wrote a commentator in the People’s Daily.
In Hong Kong, protesters at the Chinese University put up placards reading: “Don’t fear. Don’t forget. Don’t forgive” and chants including “Do you hear the people singing?” from the musical “Les Miserables”. Most hid their faces behind blank white sheets of paper.
“I want to show my support,” said a 24-year-old mainland student who would only identify himself as G for fear of retaliation. “I worry about things that I couldn’t be told in the past.”
University security guards videotaped the event, but there was no sign of the police.
At an event in Central, a business district, about four dozen protesters held up blank sheets of paper and flowers in what they said were mourning the Urumqi fire victims and others who have died as a result of “zero COVID” policies.
Police cordoned off an area around protesters, who stood in small, separate groups to avoid violating pandemic rules that prevent gatherings of more than 12 people. The police took identity information from the participants, but no arrests were made.
Hong Kong has tightened security controls and rolled back Western civil liberties since China launched a campaign in 2019 to crush a pro-democracy movement. The area has its own antivirus strategy that is separate from the mainland.
Hong Kong’s chief executive, John Lee, is a law-and-order hardliner who led the crackdown on protesters, including on university campuses.
Both Hong Kong’s government and the State Council, China’s cabinet, issued statements on Monday pledging to uphold public order and the authority of the National Security Law, which gives authorities sweeping powers to charge protesters with crimes including sedition.
Protests also took place over the weekend in Guangzhou near Hong Kong, Chengdu and Chongqing in the southwest and Nanjing in the east, according to witnesses and video on social media. Guangzhou has previously seen violent confrontations between police and residents protesting quarantines.
Most protesters have complained about excessive restrictions, but some have turned their anger on Xi, China’s most powerful leader since at least the 1980s. In a video confirmed by The Associated Press, a crowd in Shanghai on Saturday chanted: “Xi Jinping! Step down! CCP! Step down!”
British Broadcasting Corp. said one of its reporters was beaten, kicked, handcuffed and detained for several hours by Shanghai police but later released.
The BBC criticized what it said was the Chinese authorities’ explanation that its reporter was detained to prevent him from contracting coronavirus from the crowd. “We do not consider this a credible explanation,” the broadcaster said in a statement.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said the BBC reporter could not identify himself and “did not voluntarily provide” his press credentials.
“Foreign journalists must consciously follow Chinese laws and regulations,” Zhao said.
Swiss broadcaster RTS said its correspondent and a cameraman were detained while doing a live broadcast but released a few minutes later. An AP journalist was detained but later released.
Associated Press writer Joe McDonald in Beijing contributed.