SHANGHAI/BEIJING, Nov 30 (Reuters) – Residents of China’s industrial hub of Guangzhou clashed with white riot police dressed in hazardous materials late on Tuesday, videos on social media showed, as frustration with strict COVID-19 rules were overflowing, three years after the pandemic.
The clashes in the southern city marked an escalation of protests in central Shanghai, the capital Beijing and other cities over the weekend in mainland China’s biggest wave of civil disobedience since President Xi Jinping took power a decade ago.
Resentment is growing as China’s COVID-hit economy falters after decades of breakneck growth, which formed the basis of an unwritten social contract between the ruling Communist Party and a population whose freedoms were drastically curtailed under Xi.
In a video posted to Twitter, dozens of riot police in stark white pandemic gear, holding shields over their heads, advanced in formation over what appeared to have knocked down blocking barriers as objects flew at them.
Later, police were seen escorting a row of handcuffed people to an unknown location.
Another video clip showed people throwing objects at police, while a third showed a tear gas canister falling into a small crowd in a narrow street, with people running to escape the smoke.
Reuters verified that the videos were filmed in Guangzhou’s Haizhu district, the scene of COVID-related unrest two weeks ago, but was unable to determine when the clips were taken or the exact sequence of events and what triggered the clashes.
Social media posts said the clashes took place on Tuesday night and were caused by a dispute over lockdown restrictions.
The government of Guangzhou, a city hard hit by the latest wave of infections, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The China Dissent Monitor, run by the US government-funded Freedom House, estimated that at least 27 demonstrations took place across China from Saturday to Monday. The Australian think tank ASPI estimated 43 protests in 22 cities.
Home to many migrant factory workers, Guangzhou is a sprawling port city north of Hong Kong in Guangdong province, where authorities announced late on Tuesday that they would allow close contacts of COVID cases to quarantine at home, instead of being forced into shelters.
The decision broke with the usual practice of China’s zero COVID policy.
In Zhengzhou, the site of a large Foxconn factory that makes Apple iPhones and which has seen workers unrest over COVID, officials announced an “orderly” resumption of businesses, including supermarkets, gyms and restaurants.
However, they also published a long list of buildings that would remain closed.
Hours before those announcements, national health officials said on Tuesday that China would respond to “urgent concerns” raised by the public and that COVID rules should be implemented more flexibly according to conditions in each region.
But while the easing of some measures, which comes as China records daily record numbers of COVID cases, appears to be an attempt to appease the public, authorities have also begun reaching out to those who have been to recent protests.
“The police came to my door to ask me about everything and make me fill out a written record,” a Beijing resident who declined to be identified told Reuters on Wednesday.
Another resident said that some friends who had posted videos of the protests on social media were taken to a police station and asked to sign a pledge that they “would not do it again”.
It was unclear how authorities identified the people they wanted to question, or how many of those people authorities contacted.
Beijing’s Public Security Bureau declined to comment.
On Wednesday, several police cars and security personnel were stationed on a bridge in eastern Beijing, where a protest had taken place three days earlier.
In a statement that did not refer to the protests, the Communist Party’s top body in charge of law enforcement agencies said late on Tuesday that China would resolutely crack down on “the infiltration and sabotage activities of hostile forces”.
The Central Commission for Political and Legal Affairs also said that “illegal and criminal acts that disturb the social order” will not be tolerated.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that rights and freedoms must be exercised within the law.
White House national security spokesman John Kirby said on Tuesday that protesters in China should not be harmed.
COVID spread despite China largely isolating itself from the world and requiring significant sacrifices of hundreds of millions to comply with relentless testing and prolonged isolation.
While infection and death numbers are low by global standards, analysts say a reopening before vaccination rates increase could lead to widespread illness and death and overwhelm hospitals.
Lockdowns have hit the economy, disrupting global supply chains and roiling financial markets.
Data released on Wednesday showed China’s manufacturing and services activity in November posted the lowest readings since the start of the two-month lockdown in Shanghai in April. see more information
Chinese equities (.SSEC), (.CSI300) were flat as markets weighed endemic economic weakness against hopes that public pressure could push China to eventually reopen.
The head of the International Monetary Fund, Kristalina Georgieva, has signaled a possible downgrade in China’s growth forecasts.
Additional reporting by Eduardo Baptista and Yew Lun Tian in Beijing; Written by Marius Zaharia; Editing by Michael Perry, Robert Birsel
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