The White House on Monday said it supports the rights of protesters in China but stopped short of criticizing the Chinese Communist Party’s sometimes violent crackdown on demonstrations against the country’s strict COVID-19 policies.
Chinese citizens in multiple cities hit the streets to let President Xi Jinping know they are fed up with his zero-COVID policy of rolling lockdowns and mandatory testing, resulting in the largest anti-government demonstrations since the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989 ended with a massacre of student protesters.
Pressed on the beatings and arrests of COVID-19 protesters, National Security Council spokesman John Kirby did not take Mr. Xi to task, though voiced support for protesters who want to air their displeasure.
“People should be allowed the right to assemble and to peacefully protest policies or laws or dictates they take issue with,” he said. “The White House supports the right of peaceful protest.”
Mr. Kirby said Mr. Biden is being briefed on the protests and said “this is a moment for the Chinese people and the Chinese government to speak to.”
“We’ve made it clear a lockdown is not a policy we’re not going to support here,” Mr. Kirby said. “We’ve come a long way over these last three years — hard to believe, three years — in terms of treating COVID and preventing COVID. A lockdown is not a policy we support here.”
China is easing some of its coronavirus restrictions in the face of the astonishing demonstrations across the nation, but the government showed no signs of abandoning its zero-COVID policy and use of so-called nuisance accounts to bury news about the protests online.
Some U.S. lawmakers called on Mr. Biden to offer a more forceful response.
“The Biden administration’s response has been worse than expected. The CCP should know that one way or another, in the coming months or in the coming years, the United States will hold accountable each and every CCP official responsible for atrocities against these protesters,” Sen. Ted Cruz, Texas Republican, said, using an acronym for the Chinese Communist Party.
Rep. Michael McCaul, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, saluted the Chinese protesters in a statement.
“The protests we’re seeing in China remind us of two critical facts. First, Xi Jinping‘s lifelong dictatorship and dystopian governance is neither popular nor unchallenged,” he said. “Second, the CCP represents its own interests, not the well-being of the people of China, who are its victims and who share the desire for individual liberty that every American treasures.”
Mr. Biden recently met with Mr. Xi on the sidelines of the Group of 20 nations summit in Indonesia.
“They did talk about COVID and the effect the pandemic had had around the world,” Mr. Kirby said. “I don’t know if, specifically, the zero-COVID policy was an issue of discussion.”
In a sign the government is trying to placate citizens, officials in the southern city of Guangzhou said some residents would not have to submit to mass testing, according to wire reports.
Officials in Beijing said they would no longer use gates to block off apartment complexes with known infections.
“Passages must remain clear for medical transportation, emergency escapes and rescues,” Wang Daguang, a city official who handles COVID-19 control, said in a China News Service report.
State media, meanwhile, urged cities to avoid one-size-fits-all approaches to COVID-19 control and said targeted, effective strategies should be preserved and ineffective ones should be discarded.
At the same time, police formed human walls to try and block protesters, beat demonstrators and arrested them.
Officials did not mention a deadly fire in the northwestern city of Urumqi that prompted wide protests and suspicions that virus control might have blocked people trying to escape.
Also, there were signs that some dormant Twitter accounts roared to life to try to bury news about the protests.
The accounts posted information about escorts, gambling and other vices alongside city names so people searching for information about the protests had trouble finding useful content.
There were some “good initial data that points to this being an intentional attack to throw up informational chaff and reduce external visibility into protests in China,” tweeted Alex Stamos, director of the Stanford Internet Observatory.
China has defended its zero-COVID policy, saying it saved lives compared to astounding death tolls in Western nations.
Yet the Chinese people appear tired of draconian policies with no end date, particularly after Mr. Xi secured another five-year term at a Communist Party meeting.
Other nations, including the U.S., are relying on built-up immunity from vaccines and prior infections to move on with societal and economic life without sweeping restrictions.
The social burden and economic drawbacks of China‘s policy, combined with concerns about the vaccine campaign, are resulting in simmering discontent across China.
Mr. Kirby said the U.S. is a major donor of vaccines around the world but has not offered any to China, which is deploying its own vaccines.
“We have not received any requests or any interest by China to receive our vaccines,” Mr. Kirby said.
The Urumqi fire that killed 10 people appeared to fuel those complaints, with people in Shanghai shouting, “Xi Jinping! Step down! CCP! Step down!”
“The tenuous trust that exists between the CCP and the Chinese people is starting to fray, and it’s not entirely clear that Xi has any new ideas for how to reopen China without risking a massive increase in infection rates, and thus a corresponding spike in hospitalizations and deaths. Put simply, Xi is in a trap of his own making,” said Craig Singleton, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a nonpartisan think tank.
“The problem, though, is that the CCP has not articulated a clear path out of zero-COVID,” he said. “Xi has so closely staked his legacy on the notion that China‘s pandemic response has been superior to that of the West. That narrative would be seriously undermined if China lifted these controls too quickly and hospitals quickly became overrun.”
The Associated Press reported there were other protests scattered across China, including Guangzhou, Chengdu, Nanjing and Chongqing.
Mr. Singleton said isolated protests are common in China but the scale of the weekend events in mainland China was “unprecedented” in the Xi era.
“And second,” he said, “many of the protestors were vocalizing frustration not just with zero-COVID’s excesses, but Xi Jinping himself.”
For more information, visit The Washington Times COVID-19 resource page.