BEIJING (AP) — China’s ruling Communist Party has vowed to “resolutely combat the infiltration and sabotage activities of enemy forces,” following the biggest street protests in decades by citizens fed up with strict virus restrictions.
The Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission’s statement released late Tuesday comes amid a massive show of force by security agencies to prevent a repeat 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 served as a reminder of the party’s determination to assert its rule.
Hundreds of SUVs, trucks and armored vehicles with flashing lights were parked on city streets on Wednesday as police and paramilitary forces conducted random ID checks and searched people’s cellphones for photos, banned apps or other possible evidence that they had taken part in the protests. demonstrations.
The number of people arrested in the protests and subsequent police action is not known.
The committee’s statement, issued after an expanded meeting on Monday presided over by its chief Chen Wenqing, a member of the party’s 24-member Politburo, said the meeting aimed to review the results of the Oct. 20 party congress..
At that event, Xi granted himself a third five-year term as general secretary, potentially making him China’s leader for life, while stacking key organs with loyalists and quashing dissenting voices.
“The meeting emphasized that political and legal institutions must take effective measures to … resolutely safeguard national security and social stability,” the statement said.
“We must resolutely crack down on the infiltration and sabotage activities of enemy 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.
But less than a month after seemingly securing his political future and unchallenged rule, Xi, who has said he favors regime stability above all else, faces 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 sparked support protests abroad.
Most protesters focused their anger on the “zero COVID” policy that has quarantined millions, limiting their access to food and medicine, while crippling the economy and severely curtailing travel. Many scoffed at the government’s ever-changing reasoning, as well as claims that “hostile external forces” were driving the furor.
But bolder voices have called for greater freedom and democracy and for Xi, China’s most powerful leader in decades, as well as the party he leads, to step down – considered subversive and punishable by long prison terms. Some held white pieces of white paper to demonstrate their lack of free speech rights.
The weekend protests were sparked by anger over the death of at least 10 people in a fire on Nov. 24 in far western China, prompting angry questions online about whether the firefighters or victims trying to escape were thwarted by anti-virus controls.
Authorities eased some controls and announced a new push to vaccinate vulnerable groups after the protests, but maintained they would stick to the “zero COVID” strategy.
The party had already promised last month to reduce unrest, but a surge in infections quickly put party officials under intense pressure to step up controls in a bid 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 the southern province of Guangdong sent students home in an apparent attempt to defuse tensions. Chinese leaders are wary of universities, which have been hotbeds of activism, including the Tiananmen protests.
Police appeared to be trying to keep their crackdown out of sight, possibly to avoid emboldening others by drawing attention to the scale of the protests. Videos and posts on Chinese social media about protests were deleted by the party’s massive online censorship apparatus.
“Zero-COVID” has helped keep case numbers down than those of 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 dismissed the remarks as irresponsible.
Beijing needs to make its approach “very targeted” to reduce economic disruption, the head of the International Monetary Fund told The Associated Press. in an interview on Tuesday.
“We see the importance of moving away from mass lockdowns,” IMF Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva said in Berlin. “Thus this targeting allows for limiting the spread of COVID without significant economic cost.”
Economists and health experts, however, warn that Beijing cannot relax controls that keep most travelers away from China until tens of millions of elderly people are vaccinated. They say this means “zero-COVID” may not end for another year.
On Wednesday, US Ambassador to China Nicholas Burns said the restrictions, among other things, make it impossible for US diplomats to meet with US prisoners held in China, as required by international treaty. Due to the lack of commercial air routes in the country, the Embassy has to use monthly charter flights to move its staff in and out.
“Covid is really dominating every aspect of life” in China, he said in an online discussion with the Chicago Council on World Affairs.
Regarding the protests, Burns said the embassy was monitoring their progress and the government’s response, but said, “We believe the Chinese people have the right to protest peacefully.”
“They have the right to make their views known. They have a right to be heard. This is a fundamental right all over the world. It should be. And this right should not be obstructed and should not be interfered with,” he said.
Burns also cited cases of Chinese police harassing and arresting foreign reporters covering the protests.
“We support freedom of the press as well as freedom of speech,” he said.