After the wave of citizen protests against the covid zero policy last weekend, the Chinese authorities responded yesterday with a visible deployment of security in the most conflictive points, more censorship and throwing balls out by blaming what happened on "hidden interests". ”.
The mobilization reached Hong Kong yesterday, the scene of the great pro-democracy protest that erupted in 2019. Dozens of people demonstrated in silence in the city's financial district and many others at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. There, hiding their faces to avoid being identified, the students shouted: "Face up the dictatorship, don't be a slave." A young man from Shanghai who displayed a blank sheet of paper, a symbol of these protests – without any written slogan, to avoid accusations – said he had "waited a long time to speak, before I had no chance."
In Shanghai, where slogans against the Communist Party and its leader, Xi Jinping, were heard on Saturday night, officers erected a wall of large blue barriers along the main thoroughfare where protesters gathered and ordered shops closed. and restaurants in the surrounding area. According to the Afp agency, at least two people were arrested in that same place for "not obeying the provisions" of the agents, who also ordered several passers-by to delete the photos they had taken. The day before, there were several arrests on the spot, including that of BBC journalist Ed Lawrence, who reported having been "beaten and kicked by the police" while he was held for several hours.
The police deployment was also noticeable in the vicinity of the Liangma River, in Beijing, where the most popular demonstrations in the capital took place on Sunday. Carrying white sheets of paper in their hands, which have become the symbol of this protest, dozens of people shouted slogans such as "no more confinements" or "we don't want PCR, we want freedom" until the wee hours of the morning.
Meanwhile, officials at the prestigious Beijing Tsinghua University, witnessing a large student mobilization on Sunday, announced a symposium on the pandemic and offered a free bus to help students return home early before vacation, news They were met with skepticism. “The center is afraid that young people will cause problems, so they give them early vacations. They are afraid of the student movement," said one of the comments made about it on Weibo, the Chinese Twitter.
State censorship has been applied boldly to try to erase any image or reference to the mobilizations. To outwit their scissors, Internet users used wit and irony with positive messages or without apparent criticism that, however, are interpreted as a sign of discontent.
All these acts of civil disobedience, the largest in recent decades, underline the growing weariness and frustration that a considerable part of Chinese society feels towards the zero covid policy. After almost three years of controls, which the vast majority of the population has accepted as a necessary evil to avoid the high numbers of deaths registered in other countries, the situation has deteriorated notably in recent months, especially since the confinement of Shanghai in spring.
Since then, a myriad of tragedies – 27 killed in a bus accident while being transferred to a quarantine center, the death of a baby who was not treated in time due to restrictions, etc. – have fueled discontent. The death of ten people last Thursday in a fire in Urumqi, where the containment measures hindered the work of the firefighters, has been the spark.
During the weekend protests, the majority of the Chinese have called for an end to the restrictions shouting “We want freedom!”, “Open China!” or "We don't want more PCR!", referring to the obligation to undergo this type of test several times a week. Likewise, some have demanded democracy or the rule of law, as well as freedom of the press or the end of online censorship.
Asked about the origin of the protests, Foreign Affairs spokesman Zhao Lijian only said yesterday that "in social networks there are forces with ulterior motives that link this fire (in Urumqi) with the local response to Covid-19." His words broke the silence maintained by the state media. Only some news referred to the difficult pandemic situation that the country is going through, where yesterday the record for infections was broken for the fifth consecutive day, with 40,347 new positives, and the need to maintain controls.
In the absence of knowing if it is an explosion of specific discontent or it is the beginning of greater mobilizations, what happened over the weekend represents a first-order challenge for the Xi Jinping government, which has made the covid zero policy one of the fundamental pillars of its political legitimacy.
According to several analysts, Xi Jinping now faces a difficult dilemma. On the one hand, a sudden relaxation of controls could trigger a sudden increase in deaths from covid -especially in the most vulnerable groups- and the collapse of the health system, dangers that the authorities themselves have been warning about from the beginning to justify their actions. political restrictions. On the other hand, the continuation of his policy without variations or a wave of arrests and punishments against critics runs the risk of stoking discontent and provoking new mobilizations of uncertain outcome.
“People have reached a boiling point because there has been no clear direction on how to end the zero covid policy. The Communist Party has underestimated the anger of the people," Alfred Wu, an expert on China at the National University of Singapore, told the Afp agency.