The Communist Party’s top security body has called for a “crackdown” on “hostile forces” after China saw protests in major cities against COVID-19 lockdowns and in support of greater political freedoms.
The Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission, which oversees all domestic law enforcement in China, said on Tuesday that it was “necessary to crack down on infiltration and sabotage activities by hostile forces in accordance with the law”, according to a readout of a meeting carried by the state news agency Xinhua.
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It also said it was crucial to “resolutely crack down on illegal criminal acts that disrupt social order in accordance with the law and earnestly safeguard overall social stability”.
China experienced a weekend of protests not seen in decades as anger over unrelenting lockdowns fuelled deep-rooted frustration with the political system.
A deadly fire last week in Urumqi, the capital of the northwestern region of Xinjiang, was the catalyst for the outrage. Protesters blamed COVID lockdowns for interferring with rescue efforts. Demonstrators emerged on streets in cities across China to pay tribute to the 10 people killed and to call for an end to hardline COVID controls.
Some of the protesters have also used the rallies to call for greater freedom of expression and the resignation of Chinese leader Xi Jinping – bold demands in a country where all organised political opposition is systematically crushed.
Chinese universities sent their students home on Tuesday, and police have fanned out in Beijing and Shanghai to prevent more protests.
Authorities have eased some COVID-19 controls after demonstrations in at least eight mainland cities and Hong Kong, but they maintained they would stick to a “zero-COVID” strategy, which has confined millions of people to their homes for months at a time. Security forces have detained an unknown number of people and stepped up surveillance.
With police out in force, there was no word of protests on Tuesday in Beijing, Shanghai or other major mainland cities that were the scene over the weekend of the most widespread protests since the army crushed the 1989 student-led Tiananmen Square pro-democracy movement.
In Hong Kong, about a dozen people, mostly from the mainland, protested at a university.
Beijing’s Tsinghua University, where students protested at the weekend, and other schools in the capital and the southern province of Guangdong sent students home. The universities said they were protecting students from COVID-19 but dispersing them to their far-flung hometowns also reduces the likelihood of more demonstrations. Chinese leaders are wary of universities, which have been hotbeds of activism, including during the Tiananmen protests.
Authorities hope to “defuse the situation” by clearing out campuses, said Dali Yang, an expert on Chinese politics at the University of Chicago.
Depending on how tough a position the government takes, groups might take turns protesting, he said.
Police appeared to be trying to keep their crackdown out of sight, possibly to avoid drawing attention to the scale of the protests or encouraging others. Videos and posts on Chinese social media about protests were deleted by the ruling party’s vast online censorship apparatus.
There were no announcements about detentions although reporters saw protesters taken away by police and authorities warned some detained protesters against demonstrating again.
Two protesters told the Reuters news agency 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 aim to question.
Sympathy protests were held overseas, and foreign governments have called for restraint from Beijing.
“We support the right of people everywhere to peacefully protest, to make known their views, their concerns, their frustrations,” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said during a visit to Bucharest, Romania.
UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric called for China to allow peaceful protests, and the head of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) said on Tuesday that it is time for China to move away from massive lockdowns and towards a more targeted approach to COVID-19.
IMF Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva told The Associated Press that a change would ease the impact on a world economy already struggling with high inflation, an energy crisis and food supply disruptions.
She urged a “recalibration” of China’s tough “zero-COVID” approach “exactly because of the impact it has on both people and on the economy”.
“We see the importance of moving away from massive lockdowns, being very targeted in restrictions, so that targeting allows to contain the spread of COVID without significant economic costs,” Georgieva said on Tuesday in Berlin.
She also urged China to look at vaccination policies and focus on vaccinating the “most vulnerable people”.
Wang Dan, a student leader of the 1989 demonstrations who now lives in exile, said the protests “symbolize the beginning of a new era in China … in which Chinese civil society has decided not to be silent and to confront tyranny”.
But he warned at a news conference in Taipei, Taiwan, that authorities were likely to respond with “stronger force to violently suppress protesters”.