Police are out in force in China to stamp out zero-Covid protests amid reports some demonstrators have been interrogated by authorities over the phone after attending the rare street gatherings in cities across the country.
On Monday police stopped and searched people at the sites of weekend protests in several Chinese cities, after a show of civil disobedience unprecedented since President Xi Jinping assumed power a decade ago.
there were also reports of police asking people for their phones to check if they had virtual private networks (VPNs) and the Telegram app, which has been used by weekend protesters. VPNs are illegal for most people in China, while the Telegram app is blocked from China’s internet.
In Beijing, hundreds of mostly young people braved icy temperatures to gather near a riverbank in the capital on Sunday evening, as a vigil for victims of a deadly apartment blaze in north-western China’s Xinjiang region turned into calls to end zero-Covid.
A woman protester told news agency AFP that by Monday evening she and five of her friends who attended the protest had received phone calls from Beijing police, demanding information about their movements.
In one case, a police officer visited her friend’s home after they refused to answer their phone.
“He said my name and asked me whether I went to the Liangma river last night … he asked very specifically how many people were there, what time I went, how I heard about it,” she told AFP, asking to stay anonymous .
“The police stressed that last night’s protest was an illegal assembly, and if we had demands then we could submit them through the regular channels.”
She said that the police officer was mostly “even-toned” during the brief call and urged her not to attend future events.
“I had previously prepared for this, but of course I was still agitated,” she said, adding she would “try her best to continue” attending similar protests in the future, and “prepare better” next time. “I never thought that this kind of civil society activity could ever happen in China,” she said.
It is not clear how police discovered the identities of some protesters and the vast majority of those at Sunday’s rally did not have their ID documents checked by police, an AFP journalist saw.
In Shanghai, an AFP reporter witnessed multiple arrests and confirmed that police had forcibly checked one protester’s phone for foreign social media apps blocked in China which have been used to spread information about the protests.
There was no sign of new protests on Monday in Beijing or Shanghai, but dozens of police were in the areas where demonstrations had taken place.
Police cars lined the streets around a central Beijing subway station and patrolled surrounding blocks on Monday evening, while uniformed and plain-clothed officers stood guard at station exits and stopped passersby for questioning. Hours after the scheduled start of a protest organized via encrypted messaging apps there were few apparent participants.
Asked about widespread anger over China’s zero-Covid policy, foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told reporters: “What you mentioned does not reflect what actually happened.
“We believe that with the leadership of the Communist party of China, and cooperation and support of the Chinese people, our fight against Covid-19 will be successful.”
Inside China, the government and state media have maintained silence on the protests but their awareness is apparent. Tuesday’s newspapers carried several items on zero-Covid, including an editorial in Xinhua acknowledging that the pandemic “has had some impact on social production and life”.
“In the face of complex changes in the pandemic, all localities and departments must be more patient and relieve the emotions of the people,” it said.
In Shanghai, authorities barricaded a street where protesters had gathered for the past two nights. A heavy police presence lined the city’s Middle Urumqi Road according to people nearby and footage shared online. Edward Lawrence, a BBC journalist who was allegedly detained and beaten by police on Sunday before being freed, filmed bystanders having their photos forcibly deleted by police.
Some small actions were held, according to observers sharing videos and photos online. According to a Twitter account that has been sharing protest material in recent days, a small group of people holding up blank sheets of paper in Kunming were later taken away by police.
On Monday, smaller demonstrations spilled over outside mainland China. Dozens of protesters gathered in Hong Kong’s central business district, the scene of sometimes-violent anti-government demonstrations in 2019. Expatriate dissidents and students staged small-scale vigils and protests in cities around the world including London, Paris, Tokyo and Sydney.
US president Joe Biden is closely monitoring unrest in China by protesters, the White House said on Monday. National security council spokesman John Kirby would not describe Biden’s reaction to the protesters’ demands but said the president supported their rights.
“People should be allowed the right to assemble and to peacefully protest policies or laws or dictates that that they take issue with,” Kirby said.
Britain’s prime minister Rishi Sunak warned that China posed a “systemic challenge” to UK values and interests, as his government condemned the reported beating of the BBC reporter.
Sunak said the so-called “golden era” of UK-China relations trumpeted by former prime minister David Cameron was “over, along with the naive idea that trade would automatically lead to social and political reform.”
Since Friday, a wave of protests spread across multiple cities in China, prompted by the death of 10 people in a building fire in Urumqi in Xinjiang. Much of the region had been under lockdown for more than three months, and people blamed the lockdown for the deaths.
The protests have demonstrated a growing frustration and skepticism with the ruling Communist party’s commitment to zero-Covid. Xi’s government has pursued a policy of lockdowns, repeated testing of millions of people and lengthy quarantines for overseas arrivals in an attempt to limit spread.
A series of incidents related to the enforcement of the policy, including a bus crash that killed 27 people being taken to quarantine, and numerous suicides and other deaths linked to lockdowns and restrictions, have tested people’s tolerance.
The widespread protests included prolific use of blank sheets of paper to represent the dissent Chinese people are largely unable to express safely. In one shared video apparently showing a crowd at Beijing’s Liangma bridge, a man clad in white says “we’ll always support the Communist party, but we want democracy and freedom!” as he holds up a blank piece of paper.
Agence France-Presse and Reuters contributed to this report
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism