BEIJING (AP) — Chinese universities sent students home and police were deployed in Beijing and Shanghai on Tuesday to prevent further protests after crowds grew angry over strict anti-virus restrictions. In the biggest public dissent in decades.
Authorities have eased some restrictions after demonstrations in at least eight mainland cities and Hong Kong, but have maintained they will stick to a “zero-Covid” strategy that has kept millions of people confined to their homes for months. Security forces have detained several unidentified persons and intensified surveillance.
There were no protests on Tuesday in Beijing, Shanghai or other mainland cities, the scene of the most widespread protests last weekend, as police were deployed. The military crushed the 1989 Tiananmen Square pro-democracy movement.
In Hong Kong, about a dozen people, mostly the majority, protested at a university.
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. The schools said they were protecting themselves from COVID-19, but dispersing them to distant hometowns reduced the risk of further demonstrations. Chinese leaders are wary of universities that have been hotbeds of activism, including the Tiananmen protests.
On Sunday, Tsinghua students were told to go home early for the semester. C’s educational institution, the school, arranged buses to take them to the railway station or the airport.
Nine student dorms in Tsinghua were closed on Monday after some students tested positive for COVID-19, and it was suggested that the closure would make it difficult for crowds to gather. The student gave only his surname, Chen, fearing retribution from authorities.
Beijing Forestry University also announced that it will facilitate the students’ return home. Its faculty and students have all tested negative for the virus, it said.
At least 10 universities have sent students home. The schools announced that classes and final exams will be conducted online.
Authorities hope to “de-escalate the situation” by clearing campuses, said Dali Yang, an expert on Chinese politics at the University of Chicago.
Depending on how tough the government takes, the groups may take turns protesting, he said.
The police appeared to be trying to keep their crackdowns inconspicuous, so as not to draw attention to the scale of the protests or encourage others. The ruling party’s vast online censorship apparatus has deleted videos and posts on Chinese social media about the protests.
There were no announcements of detentions, but reporters saw protesters being taken away by police, and authorities warned some detained protesters against demonstrating again.
In Shanghai, police stopped pedestrians on Monday night and searched their phones, according to a witness, who may have been looking for apps such as Twitter, which are banned in China, or images of protests. The witness, who insisted on anonymity for fear of arrest, said he was on his way to a protest but found no casualties when he arrived.
Images seen by The Associated Press of photos from a weekend protest showed police shoving people into cars. Some were swept away in police raids after the demonstrations ended.
A man who lived near the site of the protest in Shanghai was taken into custody on Sunday and held until Tuesday morning, said two friends who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals from authorities.
In Beijing, police on Monday visited a resident who had participated in a protest the previous night, according to a friend who declined to be identified for fear of retaliation. The resident was interrogated by the police and warned against further protests.
On Tuesday, protesters at the University of Hong Kong chanted against virus restrictions and held up sheets of paper with critical slogans. Some of the spectators joined in their singing.
Protesters held placards reading “Say No to Covid Panic” and “No Dictatorship, Democracy”.
One shouted: “We are not foreign powers, we are your classmates.” Chinese authorities often try to discredit domestic critics by saying they work on behalf of foreign powers.
“Zero Covid” This has helped reduce the number of cases compared to the United States and other major countries, but global health experts increasingly say this is unsustainable.
The head of the International Monetary Fund told The Associated Press that Beijing needs to make its approach “very targeted” to reduce the economic fallout. In an interview Tuesday.
“We see the importance of moving away from massive lockdowns,” IMF Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva said in Berlin. “Targeting therefore allows for the prevention of the spread of COVID without significant economic costs.”
However, economists and health experts warn that Beijing cannot relax restrictions that keep most travelers out of China until millions of elderly people are vaccinated. That means “zero COVID” may not end for another year.
On Tuesday, the National Health Commission announced plans to encourage the elderly to reach out to people unable to leave their homes through publicity campaigns, community centers and mobile vaccination sites.
Public tolerance of the restrictions has eroded as some who are confined to their homes say they struggle to get food and medicine.
China’s Communist Party promised to ease restrictions last month, but a surge in infections has prompted cities to tighten restrictions.
The weekend protests were fueled by anger over the deaths of at least 10 people in the fire In China’s far west last week, it prompted angry questions online about whether anti-virus restrictions prevented firefighters or victims from trying to rescue them.
Most protesters complained about excessive restrictions, but some were angry at Xi, China’s most powerful leader since the 1980s.
In a video confirmed by The Associated Press, a crowd in Shanghai on Saturday chanted, “Xi Jinping! Get off! CCP! Get off!” Such direct criticism of Xi is unprecedented.
There were sympathy protests abroad, and foreign governments called on Beijing to exercise restraint.
“We support the right of people everywhere to peacefully protest and express their views, concerns and frustrations,” US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said during a visit to Bucharest, Romania.
Meanwhile, the British government summoned China’s ambassador to protest the arrest and beating of a BBC cameraman in Shanghai.
Press freedom is “something at the heart of the UK’s belief system,” Foreign Secretary James Cleverley said.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian disputed the British version of events. Zhao said the journalist, Edward Lawrence, had failed to identify himself and the BBC was twisting the story.
Asked about criticism of the crackdown, Zhao defended Beijing’s anti-virus strategy, saying the public’s legal rights were protected by law.
“The government is trying to minimize the impact of Covid on social and economic development while providing maximum protection to people’s lives and health,” he said.
Wang Dan, a former student leader of the 1989 demonstrations who lives in exile, said the protests “symbolized the beginning of a new era in China … Chinese civil society is determined not to remain silent and to confront tyranny”.
But he warned at a news conference in Taipei, Taiwan, that “the authorities will respond more forcefully to violently repress the protesters.” ___
Kang reported from Shanghai and Wu from Taipei, Taiwan. Associated Press writers Canice Leung in Hong Kong, Jill Lawless in London, David McHugh in Berlin and Ellen Nickmeier in Bucharest, Romania contributed.