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China bands together to quell wave of Covid protests

After China experiences its boldest and most widespread protests in decades, challenging Xi Jinping, a Communist Party leader who values ​​his reputation as an ironclad authority, his security apparatus is scrambling to regain control.

Public safety personnel and vehicles covered potential protest sites. Police are searching some residents’ phones for banned apps. Officials visit the homes of potential protesters to warn them of illegal activity and take some of them for questioning. Censors clean protest symbols and slogans from social media.

The campaign to quell protests on multiple fronts relies on the party’s decades-old toolbox of repression and surveillance that Mr. Xi has enhanced for the purpose of unwavering dominance. He has expanded the police force, promoted loyal security officials to key posts and declared that “political security” – for him and for the party – must be the bedrock of national security.

Yet even as Mr. Xi deploys the police, he projects an unflappable appearance of business as usual.

He has remained silent on the rare open challenge to his power that has erupted in protests, including calls for his resignation. He seems to be betting that by outwardly ignoring the protests he can sap their momentum as the security services intervene and the party’s army of online loyalists attempt to discredit the protesters as tools of state-directed subversion. -United.

“They say as little as possible for as long as possible,” said William Hurst, a Cambridge University professor who studies politics and protest in China. “If they talk, it could escalate the situation, so it’s best to sit back and pretend nothing has happened.”

On Tuesday, the People’s Daily, the party’s main newspaper, featured Mr. Xi’s talks with the visiting Mongolian president and a front-page celebration of Mr. Xi’s decade in power, but not a word about the protests. , the most common in China since Tiananmen. Square pro-democracy movement of 1989.

Yet there is no doubt that inside the guarded isolation of the Zhongnanhai Party leadership complex in Beijing, Mr. Xi and his advisers have been monitoring the unrest and plotting a response. Since the 1989 protests, Chinese leaders have focused on the dangers of anti-government social movements, determined to nip them in the bud and avoid the trauma of yet another bloody crackdown.

Even so, protests that erupted in parts of Shanghai, Beijing and other Chinese cities over the weekend appeared to catch leaders off guard.

Collective public anger first erupted in Urumqi, a city in western China where at least 10 people died in an apartment fire last week. Many people said, despite official denials, that the deaths were caused by pandemic restrictions that prevented residents from leaving their buildings. Protests over the tragedy have turned into broader denunciations of China’s pandemic policies, as well as calls by some for democracy, a free press and other ideals anathema to the country’s authoritarian rulers.

This week, Chinese security forces have regrouped, making further protests much more difficult and risky.

“I’m pretty sure the security apparatus will get this under control pretty quickly,” said H. Christoph Steinhardt, a researcher at the University of Vienna who studies protest patterns in China. “I assume they will start by identifying the ringleaders and then build on them, combined with preventive policing in public spaces.”

In Hangzhou, a thriving city about 100 miles southwest of Shanghai, police broke up an attempted protest Monday night, yelling at passers-by and dragging away a screaming woman. dozens of people also confronted officers who had detained someone while chanting “release him”.

In the southern city of Guangzhou, a a hundred police wearing helmets and white protective clothing to possibly ward off Covid hit their clubs on their riot shields as they crossed a street, warning people not to hang around.

Officers across China have visited the homes of protesters or arrested possible ones in the street. They check their phones for apps banned in China, delete photos of protests and warn people not to take to the streets again.

“When the police came to my door, I had to delete my text records,” said a Beijing resident who joined a protest near the Liangma River on Sunday evening. She requested that only her last name, Chen, be used, citing fear of police reprisals.

Ms Chen said she was driven by grief and frustration over the strict ‘zero Covid’ policies that have been enforced for nearly three years, including citywide lockdowns and constant Covid testing.

“I really didn’t have any slogans or specific demands,” she said. “It was more about the pent up pain of so many years.”

Officials appear to be trying to quietly address the most common grievances about China’s Covid restrictions, which have disrupted life, schooling and business.

Many residents have complained about a 20-point set of rules issued by the government on November 11, which at first appeared to promise an easing of pandemic restrictions. However, this has had little effect on the ground, where local officials are under enormous pressure to quell Covid outbreaks.

Since the weekend protests, local governments across China have said they will prevent residents from being locked in their homes longer than necessary to prevent the outbreaks from expanding. On Tuesday, an article by Xinhua, the state’s main news agency, urged authorities to show compassion to frustrated residents.

“All areas and departments need to be more patient to ease public anxieties,” the article said. “The fight against the pandemic is complex, arduous and repetitive, and we must listen to the sincere voice of the public.”

Avoiding any direct mention of the protests by Chinese leaders or in state media is likely a deliberate strategy to try to downplay their significance. In 1989, students occupying Tiananmen Square were galvanizing with fury after an editorial in the People’s Daily, the party’s mouthpiece, condemned them as being infiltrated by agents of turmoil. This time, the unrest did not reach that magnitude and those responsible seem to have learned their lesson.

“The moment central leadership takes an official line, they honor the protests with an official response and admit that they are to be reckoned with, giving them a status they would rather deny them,” said Professor Hurst of the University of Cambridge. .

In Shanghai, Beijing and other cities, police rounded up some protesters. Some were released after a few days of detention. Particular attention has been paid to university students. At Tsinghua University, a prestigious school in Beijing, hundreds of students shouted for ‘democracy and the rule of law’ and ‘freedom of speech’ in what was probably the boldest demonstration on the campus.

Tsinghua administrators said on Sunday that students could leave early for their winter vacations and offered free train or air travel, a move that may have been aimed at defusing further protests.

In China, such a response is considered moderate. But that may not last, and that doesn’t mean the Communist Party authorities will treat all protesters leniently. Instead of speaking out directly, the party has allowed loyalists on social media to portray protesters as knowingly or unknowingly pawns in Western efforts to destabilize China and discredit its “zero Covid” policy.

Since Monday, a growing chorus of such online commentators has linked the protests to the “color revolution”, a term borrowed from Russia to describe alleged Western-backed plots to sow insurgency in rival states. Some have claimed the protesters are the acolytes of those who rocked Hong Kong in 2019, prompting Mr. Xi to impose a national security law there and a sweeping crackdown on anti-government activists.

“Their style of stirring up trouble is the typical Color Revolution way,” said a comment about the weekend protests that spread across unofficial Chinese websites and social media. The leaders of the protest, he said, “were using their worst malice to agitate members of the public who do not understand their true nature – especially university students and intellectuals whose heads are stuffed with Western ideas – to join them”.

In previous years, the intimidation of the authorities and the heavy police presence would probably have been enough to stifle any nascent protest movement. This time, some protesters vow to continue to pressure the Chinese government. On social media groups operating beyond China’s censorship firewall, they brainstormed ideas for getting around in small groups, using multiple phones and figuring out how to track and share information about police movements.

But Mr. Xi’s security options are far from exhausted. China has around 2 million regular police officers – by some measures relatively few for its 1.4 billion people – but also a million or more People’s Armed Police soldiers trained to quell unrest, as well as legions of security guards and auxiliary police. In the end, there is also the Chinese army. And like during the crackdown in Hong Kong, Chinese authorities may make more arrests after the uproar subsides.

Edward Luo, a 23-year-old who watched the protest in Shanghai on Sunday, said he was a student in Hong Kong during the 2019 protests and worried that young protesters in Shanghai did not understand the risks they faced.

“I think some people weren’t scared, and there were students who maybe don’t understand the pressure this state can put on them,” he said. “Like a newborn calf that’s not afraid of a tiger.”

Joy Dong, Olivia Wang and Amy Chang Chien contributed report.

nytimes Gt

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