SHANGHAI/BEIJING: Police on Monday (Nov 28) patrolled the scenes of weekend protests in Shanghai and Beijing after crowds there and in other cities across China demonstrated against stringent COVID-19 measures disrupting lives three years into the pandemic.
From the streets of several Chinese cities to dozens of university campuses, protesters made a show of civil disobedience unprecedented since leader Xi Jinping assumed power a decade ago. During his tenure, Xi has overseen the quashing of dissent and expansion of a high-tech social surveillance system that has made protest more difficult, and riskier.
"What we object to is these restrictions on people’s rights in the name of virus prevention, and the restrictions on individual freedom and people’s livelihoods," said Jason Sun, a college student in Shanghai.
There was no sign of new protests on Monday in Beijing or Shanghai, but dozens of police were in the areas where the weekend demonstrations took place.
Asked about widespread anger over China's zero-COVID policy, foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told reporters, "What you mentioned does not reflect what actually happened.
"We believe that with the leadership of the Communist Party of China, and cooperation and support of the Chinese people, our fight against COVID-19 will be successful."
The backlash against COVID-19 restrictions is a setback for China's efforts to eradicate the virus, which is infecting record numbers of people three years after it emerged in the central city of Wuhan.
The zero-COVID policy has kept China's official death toll in the thousands, against more than a million in the United States, but has come at the cost of confining many millions to long spells at home, bringing extensive disruption and damage to the world's second-largest economy.
Abandoning it would mean rolling back on a policy championed by Xi. It would also risk overwhelming the health system and lead to widespread illness and deaths in a country with hundreds of millions of elderly and low levels of immunity to COVID-19, experts say.
The protests roiled global markets on Monday, sending oil prices lower and the dollar higher, with Chinese stocks and the yuan falling sharply.
State media did not mention the protests, instead urging citizens in editorials to stick to COVID-19 rules. Many analysts say China is unlikely to reopen before March or April, and needs an effective vaccination campaign before doing so.
"The demonstrations do not imminently threaten the existing political order, but they do mean the current COVID policy mix is no longer politically sustainable," analysts at Gavekal Dragonomics wrote in a note.
"The question now is what reopening will look like. The answer is: slow, incremental and messy."
Late on Sunday, in the commercial hub of Shanghai, where its 25 million people were stuck at home in April and May, protesters clashed with police, with security forces taking away a busload of people.
On Monday, the Shanghai streets where protesters gathered were blocked off with blue metal barriers to prevent crowds from congregating. Police in high-visibility vests patrolled in pairs, while police cars and motorbikes cruised by.
Shops and cafes in the area were asked to close, a staff member at one told Reuters.
While China's COVID policy has remained a major source of uncertainty for investors, they are now also being watched for any sign of political instability, something many of them had not considered in authoritarian China, where Xi recently secured a third leadership term.
Martin Petch, vice president at Moody’s Investors Service, said the ratings agency expected the protests "to dissipate relatively quickly and without resulting in serious political violence".
"However, they have the potential to be credit negative if they are sustained and produce a more forceful response by the authorities."
The catalyst for the protests was an apartment fire last week in the western city of Urumqi that killed 10 people. Many speculated that COVID-19 curbs in the city, parts of which had been under lockdown for 100 days, had hindered rescue and escape, which city officials denied.
Crowds in Urumqi took to the street on Friday. Over the weekend, protesters in cities including Wuhan and Lanzhou overturned COVID-19 testing facilities, while students gathered on campuses across China.
Demonstrations have also been held in at least a dozen cities around the world in solidarity.
Discussion of the protests, as well as pictures and footage, sparked a game of cat-and-mouse between social media posters and censors.
In Beijing, large crowds of peaceful but impassioned people gathered past midnight on Sunday on a city ring road.
On Sunday in Shanghai, some protesters briefly chanted anti-Xi slogans, almost unheard of in a country where Xi has a level of power unseen since Mao Zedong's era.
While anger with the COVID-19 rules simmers, some expressed opposition to people taking to the streets.
"These actions will disturb the public order," resident Adam Yan, 26, said. "It’s best to believe in the government."
China's strict control of information and continued travel curbs tied to the zero-COVID policy make verifying the numbers of protesters across the vast country challenging.
Such widespread rallies are exceptionally rare, with authorities harshly clamping down on any and all opposition to the central government.
State-run newspaper the People's Daily published a commentary Monday morning warning against "paralysis" and "battle-weariness" in the fight against COVID-19 - but stopped far short of calling for an end to the hardline policy.
"People have now reached a boiling point because there has been no clear direction to (the) path to end the zero-COVID policy," Alfred Wu Muluan, a Chinese politics expert at the National University of Singapore, told AFP.
"The party has underestimated the people's anger."
China on Monday reported a fifth straight daily record of new local cases of 40,052, up from 39,506 a day earlier. Mega-cities Guangzhou and Chongqing, with thousands of cases, are struggling to contain outbreaks while hundreds of infections were recorded in several cities across the country on Sunday.