Protests over China’s ‘Zero COVID’ measures spread to Hong Kong after mainland rallies

HONG KONG — Students in Hong Kong chanted “Against Dictatorship” on Monday in protest of China’s COVID-19 rules, after protesters on the mainland called on President Xi Jinping to resign in the largest opposition demonstration against the ruling Communist Party in decades.

Rallies against China’s unusually strict antivirus measures spread across several cities over the weekend, and authorities relaxed some regulations, apparently to try to quell this public anger. However, the government showed no signs of abandoning its broader coronavirus strategy and analysts expect authorities to be quick to silence the dissent.

As police were on duty Monday, there was no word of protests in Beijing or Shanghai. But about 50 students sang at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and some lit candles in support of those in mainland cities who were demonstrating against restrictions that have locked millions in their homes. The students hid their faces to avoid official retaliation and chanted “No PCR tests, but freedom!” and “Against dictatorship, don’t be slaves!”

The gathering and a similar one elsewhere in Hong Kong were the biggest protests there in more than a year under rules imposed to crush a pro-democracy movement in the area, which is Chinese but has a separate legal system from the mainland.

“I’ve wanted to speak up for a long time, but I didn’t have the opportunity,” said James Cai, a 29-year-old from Shanghai who attended a protest in Hong Kong and held up a white sheet. a symbol of defiance against the ruling party’s pervasive censorship. “If the people on the mainland can’t take it anymore, then neither can I.”

It was not clear how many people had been arrested since protests began on Friday, sparked by anger over the death of 10 people in a fire in the northwestern city of Ürümqi. Some have questioned whether locked doors or other antivirus controls blocked firefighters or victims trying to escape.

Without mentioning the protests, criticism of Xi or the fire, some local authorities eased restrictions on Monday.

Beijing’s municipal government said it would no longer erect gates to block access to residential complexes where infections are detected.

“Passages must be kept clear for medical transport, emergency escapes and rescue operations,” said Wang Daguang, a city official in charge of disease control, according to the official China News Service.

Guangzhou, a manufacturing and trade hub that is the biggest hotspot in China’s latest wave of infections, announced some residents will no longer have to undergo mass testing.

Urumqi, where the fire broke out, and another city in the northwestern Xinjiang region announced markets and other businesses in areas with a low risk of infection will reopen this week and public bus services will resume.

“Zero COVID,” which aims to isolate every infected person, has helped keep China’s case numbers lower than those of the United States and other major countries. However, tolerance of the measures has waned as people in some areas have been confined at home for up to four months and say they do not have reliable access to food and medical supplies.

In Hong Kong, protesters hung placards at the Chinese University that read, “Don’t be afraid. Do not forget. Forgive not.” from the musical “Les Miserables”. Most hid their faces behind blank white sheets.

“I want to show my support,” said a 24-year-old mainland student, who identified herself only as G for fear of retribution. “I’m interested in things I haven’t been able to experience in the past.”

University security guards videotaped the event, but no police could be seen.

At an event in Central, a business district, about four dozen protesters held up blank leaves and flowers to mourn the fire victims in Urumqi and others who have died as a result of the “zero-COVID” policy.

Police cordoned off an area around protesters, who were standing in small, separate groups, to avoid breaking pandemic rules that ban gatherings of more than 12 people. The police took identity details of the participants but made no arrests.

Hong Kong has tightened security controls and curtailed western-style civil liberties since China launched a campaign to crush a pro-democracy movement in 2019. The territory has its own antivirus strategy, separate from the mainland.

On the mainland, the ruling party pledged last month to ease disruption by changing quarantine and other rules. But a surge in infections has prompted cities to tighten controls.

On Monday, the number of daily new cases rose to more than 40,000, including more than 36,000 without symptoms.

The ruling party’s newspaper, People’s Daily, called for effective implementation of its anti-virus strategy, noting that the Xi government has no plans to change course.

“Facts have fully proved that each version of the Prevention and Control Plan has stood the test of practice,” wrote a commentator for the People’s Daily.

Protests also erupted in Guangzhou near Hong Kong, Chengdu and Chongqing in the southwest, and Nanjing in the east, according to witnesses and videos on social media.

Most protesters have complained about excessive restrictions, but some directed their anger at Xi, China’s most powerful leader since at least the 1980s. In video verified by The Associated Press, a crowd in Shanghai on Saturday chanted, “Xi Jinping! Step back! CCP!

The British Broadcasting Corp. said one of her reporters was punched, kicked, handcuffed and held for several hours by Shanghai police, but was later released.

The BBC criticized the Chinese authorities’ statement that their reporter was arrested to prevent him from catching the coronavirus from the crowd. “We do not believe this to be a credible explanation,” the broadcaster said in a statement.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said the BBC reporter did not identify himself and “did not voluntarily present his press card”.

“Foreign journalists must consciously abide by Chinese laws and regulations,” Zhao said.

Swiss broadcaster RTS said its correspondent and a cameraman were arrested during a live broadcast but released minutes later. An AP journalist was arrested but later released.


Associated Press writer Joe McDonald in Beijing contributed.

Copyright © 2022 by The Associated Press. All rights reserved. Protests over China’s ‘Zero COVID’ measures spread to Hong Kong after mainland rallies

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