China’s government doubles down on zero-COVID as anger grows

The weekend’s protests in Beijing and Shanghai were not repeated on Monday amid a high security presence in both cities

November 28, 2022 09:54 pm | Updated November 29, 2022 07:27 pm IST - Beijing

Epidemic-prevention workers in protective suits line up to get swab tested as outbreaks of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continue in Beijing, China on November 28, 2022.

Epidemic-prevention workers in protective suits line up to get swab tested as outbreaks of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continue in Beijing, China on November 28, 2022. | Photo Credit: Reuters

China’s government on November 28 doubled down on its controversial “zero-COVID” strategy amid unprecedented protests against lockdowns in many Chinese cities.

The weekend’s protests in Beijing and Shanghai were not repeated on Monday amid a high security presence in both cities. Some universities in the Chinese capital, such as Tsinghua University, that saw students come out and protest over the weekend have made plans to send students home early for the winter break, apparently to prevent further gatherings.

Students take part in a protest against COVID-19 curbs at Tsinghua University in Beijing, China seen in this still image taken from a video released on November 27, 2022 and obtained by Reuters.

Students take part in a protest against COVID-19 curbs at Tsinghua University in Beijing, China seen in this still image taken from a video released on November 27, 2022 and obtained by Reuters.

The unprecedented protests, on a scale not seen since 1989, have challenged the ruling Communist Party and leader Xi Jinping, who began a third five-year term last month.

The protesters have called for an end to the lockdowns that are mandated under Mr. Xi’s “zero-COVID policy”. In some gatherings, protesters have voiced broader concerns and called for democracy, freedom of speech and for Mr. Xi to step down—demands that will alarm the Chinese leadership and likely lead to a crackdown.

At the Shanghai protest, several were dragged away by police and videos that emerged on Monday showed a policeman repeatedly hitting a female protester inside a bus where others had been detained.

Also Read | Caught in a zero-COVID trap: Extreme measures, state power, and the lives of ordinary Chinese citizens

The BBC said its Shanghai correspondent Ed Lawrence had been arrested and beaten and kicked by the police, and subsequently released. “The BBC is extremely concerned about the treatment of our journalist Ed Lawrence, who was arrested and handcuffed while covering the protests in Shanghai,” a statement said.

The protests have come amid a COVID-19 wave with more than 40,000 cases reported on Monday. Fears of more lockdowns and harsher restrictions have driven the protests, as well as the implementation of lockdowns. Among the triggers was the death of at least 10 people last week in an apartment fire in Urumqi in western China, with the slow response seen widely as a result of lockdown measures.

Despite the widespread anger, the government on Monday doubled down on “zero-COVID”. A commentary in the official Xinhua news agency called for “unswervingly adhering” to the policy, while adding that “governments at all levels will continue to …strive to minimise the impact of the epidemic on the lives of the masses.” Another Xinhua commentary, somewhat contradictorily, also called for building more and better centralised quarantine facilities.

Asked about the anger and frustration and whether the policy would be ended soon, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said, “What you mentioned does not reflect the reality”. “China has been following the dynamic zero-COVID policy and has been making adjustments based on realities on the ground. We believe that with the leadership of the Communist Party and support of the Chinese people, our fight against COVID-19 will be successful.”

Mr. Zhao also rebutted the widely expressed concerns on social media over lockdown measures in the wake of the Urumqi fire. “On social media,” he said, “there are forces with ulterior motives that relate this fire to the local COVID-19 response.”

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