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China: Protests against Covid restrictions intensify
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Renewed scuffles erupted in Shanghai and elsewhere, followed by mass detentions, in what is widely being seen as the stiffest test for the Communist party in decades.
Capital Beijing faced turmoil in the north, as did the southwestern city Chengdu and Wuhan, in the centre of the country.
Protests have raged in at least eight big cities after 10 people died last week in a fire in flats in Urumqi in the north-western region of Xinjiang – with residents unable to leave because of covid rules.
Most protesters are incensed at the excessive restrictions – part of China’s controversial “zero Covid” policy – but some also shouted slogans against Xi himself, China’s most powerful leader since the 1980s.
Despite strict censorship, a video circulated online showing a crowd in Shanghai chanting: “Xi Jinping! Step down! CCP! Step down!”
Police using pepper spray broke up that demonstration and made arrests, but people returned later and officers made further swoops.
Videos on social media filmed in Nanjing in the east, Chongqing and Chengdu in the south-west – as well as other cities – also showed protesters tussling with police in white suits.
Others tried to dismantle barricades used to seal off neighbourhoods with covid outbreaks. Angry residents in some areas have been confined in their homes for up to four months after new coronavirus cases, and say they lack reliable food supplies. The ruling Communists promised last month to reduce the disruption by changing quarantine and other rules.
But public acceptance is now wearing thin after a new spike in infections prompted cities to again tighten controls, fuelling complaints that overzealous enforcement is hurting the public.
Experts said the situation was now critical for the ruling Chinese authorities but warned that crackdowns are likely to be harsh.
Professor Steve Tsang, Director of the China Institute at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, said: “If the government does not repress the protests quickly, then the protests are likely to spread quite widely in the cities that have suffered from lockdown.
“In which case the government will risk losing control and that’s why I don’t think Xi Jinping will allow the Communist Party to lose control.”
The protests have spread to university campuses around the world with Chinese ex-pats staging events outside their London embassy and in Paris, Tokyo and Sydney. But the growth of covid is causing chaos back home. Yesterday new daily cases rose to 40,347, including 36,525 with no symptoms.
Despite the growing unrest, the ruling party newspaper again called for the strict lockdown to continue indicating Mr Xi’s government will not change course.
A People’s Daily commentator wrote: “Facts have fully proved that each version of the prevention and control plan has withstood the test of practice.”
And Chinese authorities later again affirmed their commitment to a severe “zero-Covid” strategy despite crowds in various cities demanding the resignation of President Xi.
The government made no comment on the protests or criticism of Xi after the most widespread display of opposition to the ruling communists in decades. And there remained no official word on how many people have been detained as police pepper sprayed protesters in Shanghai and struggled to suppress demonstrations in cities including Beijing.
Officials aware of growing resentment have eased anti-virus rules in scattered areas, such as Urumqi and Korla in Xinjiang. In Beijing, officials said they would no longer set up gates to block access to apartment compounds where infections were found.
But it made no mention of the deadly fire last week that triggered the protests following angry questions online about whether firefighters or victims trying to escape were blocked by locked doors or other anti-virus controls.
A city official said: “Passages must remain clear for medical transportation, emergency escapes and rescues.”
China’s zero-Covid strategy, which aims to isolate every infected person, has helped to keep the country’s case numbers lower than those of the US and other major countries.
But many argue it is just delaying the inevitable spread of the virus while unnecessarily punishing an increasingly frustrated public.
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