BEIJING (AP) – China’s Communist Party has vowed to “resolutely crack down on infiltration and sabotage activities by hostile forces,” following the biggest street demonstrations in decades staged by citizens fed up with strict anti-virus restrictions.
The statement by the Central Commission for Political and Legal Affairs released on Tuesday comes amid a massive show of force by the security services. to prevent a recurrence of the protests that broke out over the weekend in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and several other cities.
While not directly addressing the protests, the statement serves as a reminder of the party’s determination to enforce its rule.
Hundreds of SUVs, vans and armored vehicles with flashing lights were parked on city streets on Wednesday as police and paramilitary forces carried out random ID checks and searched people’s cell phones for photos, banned apps or other possible evidence that they participated in the demonstrations.
The number of people detained in the demonstrations and in follow-up police actions is unknown.
The commission’s statement, released after an expanded session on Monday chaired by its boss Chen Wenqing, a member of the party’s 24-member Politburo, said the meeting was aimed at reviewing the results of the party’s 20th congress in October.🇧🇷
In that event, Xi bestowed himself a third five-year term as secretary general, potentially making him China’s leader for life while heaving key bodies with supporters and weeding out opposing voices.
“The meeting stressed that political and legal bodies must take effective measures to … resolutely safeguard national security and social stability,” the statement said.
“We must resolutely crack down on infiltration and sabotage activities by hostile forces in accordance with the law, resolutely crack down on illegal and criminal acts that disrupt social order, and effectively maintain overall social stability,” he said.
However, less than a month after seemingly securing his political future and unparalleled dominance, Xi, who has signaled he favors regime stability above all else, is facing his biggest public challenge yet.🇧🇷
He and the party have yet to directly address the unrest, which has spread to university campuses and the semi-autonomous southern city of Hong Kong, as well as sparking solidarity protests abroad.🇧🇷
Most protesters have focused their ire on the “zero-COVID” policy that has placed millions under lockdown and quarantine, limiting their access to food and medicine, devastating the economy and severely restricting travel. Many scoffed at the government’s ever-changing train of thought, as well as claims that “hostile foreign forces” were triggering the wave of anger.
However, bolder voices called for more freedom and democracy and for Xi, China’s most powerful leader in decades, as well as the party he leads, to step down – speech deemed subversive and punishable by long prison terms. Some held up blank pieces of paper to demonstrate their lack of free speech rights.
The weekend’s protests were sparked by anger over the deaths of at least 10 people in a fire. on Nov. 24 in China’s far west, which sparked angry questions online about whether firefighters or victims trying to escape were blocked by antivirus controls.
Authorities eased some controls and announced a new effort to vaccinate vulnerable groups after the demonstrations, but said they would stick to the “zero-COVID” strategy.
The party had already pledged last month to reduce outages, but a spike in infections quickly brought party cadres under intense pressure to tighten controls in an effort to prevent outbreaks. The National Health Commission on Wednesday reported 37,612 cases detected in the previous 24 hours, while the death toll remained unchanged at 5,233.
Beijing’s Tsinghua University, where students protested over the weekend, and other schools in the capital and southern Guangdong province sent students home. in an apparent attempt to ease tensions. Chinese leaders are wary of universities, which have been hotbeds of activism, including the Tiananmen protests.
The police appeared to be trying to keep their crackdown out of sight, possibly to avoid encouraging others by drawing attention to the scale of the protests. Videos and posts on Chinese social media about protests have been deleted by the party’s vast online censorship apparatus.
“Zero COVID” helped keep the number of cases lower 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 unsustainable. China considered the comments irresponsible.
Beijing needs to make its “very targeted” approach to reducing economic disruption, the head of the International Monetary Fund told The Associated Press. in an interview on Tuesday.
Economists and health experts, however, warn that Beijing cannot relax controls that keep most travelers out of China until tens of millions of elderly people are vaccinated. They say this means “zero COVID” could be up to another year away.
On Wednesday, the US ambassador to China, Nicholas Burns, said the restrictions were, among other things, making it impossible for US diplomats to meet with US prisoners held in China, as required by the international treaty. Due to the lack of commercial air routes into the country, the embassy has to use monthly chartered flights to transport its staff in and out.
“COVID is really taking over 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 was watching its progress and the government’s response, but said, “We believe the Chinese people have the right to protest peacefully.”
“They have the right to express their opinions. They have the right to be heard. This is a fundamental right all over the world. Should be. And that right must not be impeded and must not be interfered with,” he said.
Burns also referenced instances of Chinese police harassing and detaining foreign reporters 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 spokesman Zhao Lijian defended China’s approach to dealing with COVID-19 and said other nations should mind their own business.
“We hope that they will first pay attention to the voices and interests of their own people rather than pointing fingers at others,” Zhao told reporters at a daily briefing.