China’s government on Tuesday signaled that it is not backing down in the face of angry nationwide protests against President Xi Jinping’s strict zero-COVID policies, the country’s state media reported Tuesday.
Police have been called out in large numbers in a bid to halt the protests that erupted over the weekend following reports that quarantined residents of a building in the western region of Xinjiang were killed in a fire while rescue vehicles could not reach them due to COVID-19 restrictions.
Videos circulating on U.S. social media showed Chinese armored personnel carriers in the city of Xuzhou, northeast of Shanghai, where protesters had gathered. It is not known if the military vehicle movements are related to the protests.
The anti-lockdown protests have included calls for freedom and an end to Chinese Communist Party rule. In major cities, protesters shouted, “CCP step down” and “Xi Jinping step down.”
The symbol of the protests include protesters holding up a blank piece of white paper — a protest against government censorship and controls.
The White House on Monday offered muted support for the protests. Spokesman John Kirby told reporters that the U.S. supports the right to protest around the world, including in China.
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Asked if President Biden backed the protesters’ calls for freedom and for Mr. Xi to step down, Mr. Kirby said: “The president’s not going to speak for protesters around the world. They’re speaking for themselves.”
According to social media posts from China, police in Beijing and Shanghai began stopping people on the street and asking to see their phones. The authorities were looking for foreign apps like Twitter, Instagram and Telegram that are being used to circumvent China’s mass online censorship controls to demand an end to the zero-COVID approach.
Arrests of protesters also were reported.
China employs high-technology mass surveillance systems through police and security services. The video surveillance includes hundreds of thousands of cameras capable of comparing images of faces with databases.
The Chinese Communist Party official outlet People’s Daily and the official Xinhua News Agency published stories defending the COVID restrictions, which have included mass lockdowns of cities and large quarantine camps where those infected with the coronavirus that causes COVID have been held.
China’s National Health Commission was the first to acknowledge the depth of public anger during a press briefing Tuesday. Chen Youquan, a senior official with the commission, said “the problems recently reflected by the masses are not primarily about pandemic prevention and control per se,” The Wall Street Journal reported from Beijing. Mr. Chen said the real problem was the result of poor implementation of controls.
An account of the NHC meeting by the official Xinhua news agency quoted a commission spokesman who said that “excessive control measures should be continuously rectified and the reasonable requests of the people should be responded to and addressed in a timely manner.”
China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian avoided answering questions about the protests. On Monday Mr. Zhao said only that the rights of Chinese citizens should be exercised within laws and he defended the COVID-19 policies as “scientific.”
The zero-COVID policy was announced in 2020 by Mr. Xi as a mass campaign backed by the ruling Communist Party. It has been compared to earlier regime drives like the Cultural Revolution and Great Leap Forward in the 1960s and 1970s.
The idea behind the policy is that China would use its strong state apparatus to eliminate all forms of the virus that through the omicron variant has continued to spread through China’s 1.4 billion people. China‘s death and infection rates to date have been lower than those of other major countries, including the U.S., but it now faces a problem of easing the restrictions when large numbers of people remain vulnerable and the lockdowns have battered the economy.
For more information, visit The Washington Times COVID-19 resource page.