BEIJING ( Associated Press) — China’s ruling Communist Party has vowed to “resolutely pursue infiltration and sabotage activities by hostile forces” after the biggest street demonstrations in decades by citizens fed up with harsh restrictions over the coronavirus.
The statement issued by the Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission on Tuesday night followed demonstrations held over the weekend in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and other cities and the heavy deployment of security forces to quell protests.
Although it did not directly mention the protest, the statement recalled the party’s determination to re-establish its authority.
Police and paramilitary forces saw hundreds of pickup trucks and vehicles with beacons parked on the roads on Wednesday.
It is not known how many people were detained in the demonstrations and subsequent police actions.
According to the unit’s statement, the commission held an extended session on Monday to analyze the results of the Congress party held on October 20.
Xi earned himself a third five-year term as general secretary at that congress, which could have made him China’s leader for life, and filled party bodies with loyalists and weeded out voices of dissent.
“The meeting emphasized that political and legal bodies should take effective measures (…) to firmly safeguard national security and social stability,” the statement said.
“We must strictly pursue infiltration and sabotage activities of hostile forces in accordance with the law, vigorously pursue illegal and criminal activities that interfere with social order, and effectively maintain overall social stability,” They said.
Yet less than a month after securing his political future and unprecedented control, Xi, who has shown he puts regime stability above all else, faces his biggest public challenge to date. Huh.
Neither the president nor the party specifically mentioned the protests, which have spread to university campuses and the semi-autonomous city of Hong Kong, and have drawn support overseas.
Most of the protesters focused their outrage on the “Zero COVID” strategy, which has confined millions of people in lockdown and quarantine, with limited access to medicines and food, while disrupting the economy and severely restricting movement. Many scoffed at the government’s changing arguments, as well as claims that “foreign hostile forces” were fomenting the discontent.
But bolder voices are calling for more freedom and democracy and the departure of Xi, China’s most powerful leader in decades, and the party he leads. Such speech is considered subversive and can carry a long prison sentence. Some held up blank sheets of paper to express their lack of free speech.
The weekend protests were in response to a fire that killed at least 10 people in western China on 24 November. People wondered online whether firefighters or victims trying to escape had been blocked by virus control rules.
Following the demonstrations, authorities eased some restrictions and announced a new campaign to vaccinate the most vulnerable, although they said they would follow a “zero COVID” policy.
The party had already promised last month to reduce interference with daily life, but the surge in infections has again put party leaders under intense pressure to tighten controls and contain the outbreak. The National Health Commission on Wednesday reported the detection of 37,612 cases in the last 24 hours, while the death toll remained unchanged at 5,233.
Beijing’s Tsinghua University, where student protests erupted over the weekend, and other universities in the capital and the southern province of Guangdong sent students home in an apparent attempt to defuse tensions. Chinese authorities look down on universities, where activist movements such as the Tiananmen protests originated.
The police appeared discreet in their campaign of repression, possibly to avoid encouraging others by drawing attention to the scale of the protests. The party’s extensive digital censorship apparatus removed videos and posts about the protests on Chinese social media.
The “zero COVID” strategy has helped keep infection numbers low compared to the United States and other major countries, but is being called unsustainable by more and more global health experts, such as the head of the World Health Organization. China called those statements irresponsible.