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TUESDAY, January 31, 2023
China signals no change to zero-Covid policy as mass protests challenge Xi’s authority

China signals no change to zero-Covid policy as mass protests challenge Xi’s authority

MONDAY, November 28, 2022

China has signalled it will stick with its longstanding zero-Covid policy despite mass protests across the country over harsh containment measures, with some protesters openly calling for President Xi Jinping to resign.

The unprecedented wave of protests has spread to Shanghai as well as universities in large cities, including Beijing and Nanjing.

In a rare show of public protest against the Chinese leadership, a video showed a group shouting: “Down with the Communist Party, down with Xi Jinping!”

In a front-page editorial on Sunday, the Communist Party’s People’s Daily newspaper said China would “unwaveringly persist” in its Covid-19 policies and that “victory will be attained only by persisting to the end”.

The editorial emphasised the need to correct “wrong attitudes”, including “underestimating the problem, indifference and self-righteousness”.

“Our prevention and control policies can stand the test of history… [and they] are scientific and effective… There is no doubt about this, and we should have full confidence in this,” the editorial read.

But after almost three years of the pandemic, many Chinese are fed up with Covid-19 policies that have battered the economy and left many cooped up at home.

Since late last week, mass demonstrations have sprung up in major cities, including Shanghai, Beijing, Nanjing, Wuhan, Urumqi and others.

Sunday’s protests broke out after an apartment fire three days earlier in Urumqi, the capital of China’s Xinjiang region, killed 10 people and injured nine others.

China signals no change to zero-Covid policy as mass protests challenge Xi’s authority

Urumqi’s local government denied that evacuation of residents was hampered by lockdown measures, despite evidence to the contrary in widely circulated videos.

The case proved to be a rallying point for those angry over the draconian measures employed to keep people at home.

“Lift lockdown for Urumqi, lift lockdown for Xinjiang, lift lockdown for all of China,” chanted a crowd of dozens in Shanghai, seen in a video on social media.

On Sunday night, about 50 protesters gathered in Beijing’s embassy district to sing the Chinese national anthem and The Internationale, following the example of other protests that have erupted across the country.

They also held up blank sheets of paper as a symbol of protest against censorship, as uniformed police patrolled both sides of the Liangma River in the district. The protesters lit candles and offered flowers as a tribute to victims of the Xinjiang fire.

At Beijing’s prestigious Tsinghua University, hundreds gathered to sing the Chinese national anthem while holding up blank sheets of paper. In Nanjing’s Communication University of China, dozens held up similar pieces of white paper, illuminating them against the night sky with torchlights from their mobile phones.

Unhappiness over Covid curbs has been brewing for some time in China. On the eve of the Communist Party congress in October, a man draped banners over the side of the busy Sitong Bridge in Beijing’s Haidian district, calling for an end to Xi’s rule and the strict controls.

Analysts are now watching to see if the demonstrations across China gather momentum.

China signals no change to zero-Covid policy as mass protests challenge Xi’s authority

“The protests in China are like the tiny ant holes in the dam. While none of them is fatal on their own, enough of them, at strategic locations and times, could ultimately lead to the collapse of the mighty structure,” Singapore Management University law professor Henry Gao posted on Twitter.

At the moment, the protests are unlikely to cause Beijing to change course, said Associate Professor Alfred Wu from the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore.

“The government’s policy priority is very clear: regime stability is No 1,” said Prof Wu, pointing to the state media’s latest editorials and signals from the party congress in October. “From the state, from the government’s perspective, the only solution now is to crack down on these protests.”

The Chinese authorities are in a bind as protests are coming at a time when cases are surging because of the highly infectious Omicron variant, meaning harsher lockdown measures would be needed to get a grip on infections.

Nationwide case counts reached 39,791 on Saturday, hitting a record high for the fourth day in a row. There was also another death, bringing total fatalities to 5,233. The figures are thought to be a small fraction of the true Covid infection rate.

Beijing reported 4,245 cases on Saturday. In some housing communities, people have questioned local officials over the legal basis of lockdown measures and defied requests to stay home, city residents told the Straits Times.

To make sure that residents stay at home, some community officials have resorted to bolting building doors shut, as media worker Bernie Lee, 36, found out. He said the main door to his housing tower was chained shut on Sunday morning, and the lock was removed only after residents called the police.

“I was horrified. This is a fire hazard. What happens if there is an emergency? A lock like this is not something you can just pull apart,” he said.

In a regular press briefing on Sunday evening, Beijing officials promised to improve anti-Covid measures, including banning the practice of barricading the gates and entrances of buildings and residential compounds in high-risk areas. In addition, passages must remain clear for medical transport, emergency escapes and rescues.

The Straits Times

Asia News Network