BEIJING (AP) — China’s ruling Communist Party has vowed to “suppress infiltration and sabotage by hostile forces,” following the biggest street demonstrations in decades by citizens fed up with tough anti-virus restrictions.
The Central Political and Legal Affairs Committee’s statement, released late Tuesday, comes amid an intense show of force by the security services to deter a repeat of the protests that erupted over the weekend in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and several other cities.
While it did not directly address the protests, the statement serves as a reminder of the party’s determination to impose its rule.
Hundreds of SUVs, pickup trucks and armored vehicles with flashing lights were parked along the city’s streets on Wednesday as police and paramilitary forces conducted random identity checks and searched people’s cellphones for photos, banned apps or other possible evidence of their participation in the demonstrations.
The number of people arrested in the demonstrations and in the follow-up to police procedures is not known.
The committee’s statement, issued after a plenary session on Monday chaired by its chairman Chen Wenqing, a member of the 24-member Party Politburo, said the meeting aims to review the results of the party congress on Oct. 20..
In that event, Xi awarded himself a third five-year term as general secretary, making him China’s leader for life, while stacking key bodies with loyalists and eliminating dissenting voices.
“The meeting affirmed that the political and legal organs must take effective measures to … resolutely protect national security and social stability,” the statement said.
“We must resolutely suppress infiltration and sabotage by hostile forces in accordance with the law, resolutely suppress illegal and criminal acts that disrupt social order and effectively maintain overall social stability,” the statement said.
However, less than a month after seemingly securing his political future and unrivaled hegemony, Xi, who has indicated he favors regime stability above all else, faces his biggest public challenge yet..
He and the party have not yet directly addressed the unrest that has spread to university campuses and the semi-autonomous southern city of Hong Kong, as well as sparking sympathy protests abroad..
Most of the protesters focused their ire on the “zero coronavirus” policy that has placed millions of people under lockdown and quarantine, limiting their access to food and medicine while destroying the economy and severely restricting travel. Many derided the government’s ever-shifting style, as well as claims that “hostile outside forces” were stoking the furor.
Yet the boldest voices have called for greater freedom and democracy, calling for the Chinese president, the most powerful Chinese leader in decades, as well as the party he leads, to step down — rhetoric deemed subversive and punishable by lengthy prison terms. Some carried white pieces of white paper to prove their lack of free speech rights.
The weekend’s protests were sparked by outrage over the deaths of at least 10 people in a fire on November 24 in far western China, prompting angry questions online about whether firefighters or victims trying to flee were being blocked by anti-virus controls.
The authorities relaxed some controls and announced a new campaign to vaccinate vulnerable groups after the demonstrations, but stressed that they would stick to the “zero COVID” strategy.
The party had already promised last month to reduce unrest, but the rising number of infections soon put party cadres under intense pressure to tighten controls in an effort to prevent an outbreak. On Wednesday, the National Health Commission reported that 37,612 cases had been detected in the past 24 hours, while the death toll remained unchanged at 5,233.
Tsinghua University in Beijing, where students protested over the weekend, and other schools in the capital and southern Guangdong province sent students home. In an apparent attempt to defuse tensions. Chinese leaders are wary of universities, which have been hotbeds of activity including the Tiananmen protests.
It appears the police are trying to keep their crackdown a low profile, perhaps to avoid emboldening others by drawing attention to the scale of the protests. Videos and posts on Chinese social media about the protests have been deleted by the party’s vast internet censorship apparatus.
“Zero COVID” has helped keep case numbers down than those in the United States and other major countries, but global health experts including the head of the World Health Organization increasingly say it is not sustainable. China dismissed the remarks as irresponsible.
The head of the International Monetary Fund told the Associated Press that Beijing needs to make its approach “very targeted” to reduce economic turmoil. In an interview on Tuesday.
However, economists and health experts warn that Beijing cannot ease the controls that keep most travelers out of China until tens of millions of elderly people have been vaccinated. They say this means “zero COVID” may not end for another year.
On Wednesday, US Ambassador to China Nicholas Burns said the restrictions, among other things, make it impossible for US diplomats to meet US prisoners held in China, as required by the international treaty. Due to the lack of commercial airlines to the country, the embassy has to use monthly charter flights to transport its staff in and out of the country.
“COVID is really dominating every aspect of life” in China, he said in an online discussion with the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.
On the protests, Burns said the embassy is monitoring their progress and the government’s response, but said, “We believe the Chinese people have a right to peaceful protest.”
“They have the right to express their opinion. They have the right to be heard. This is a fundamental right around the world. It should be. This right should not be impeded, nor should it be interfered with.”
Burns also cited cases in which Chinese police harassed and detained foreign correspondents covering the protests.
“We support freedom of the press as well as freedom of expression,” he said.
Asked about foreign expressions of support for the protesters, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian defended China’s approach to COVID-19 and said other countries should mind their own affairs.
“We hope that they will first respond to the voices and interests of their own people, rather than pointing fingers at others,” Zhao told reporters at a daily briefing.
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