Chinese police patrolled the capital, Beijing, and Shanghai, China’s largest city and financial hub, on Tuesday, working to prevent the resurgence of protests against the country’s COVID restrictions that have also included rare calls for President Xi Jinping to resign.
Both cities were quiet overnight with police out in force, particularly in areas where social media users suggested new gatherings.
China’s government eased some of its pandemic rules on Monday, but also continues to defend its commitment to a zero-COVID strategy.
The government made no mention of the demonstrations, the biggest show of opposition to the ruling Communist Party in decades, but the slight relaxation of the rules appeared aimed at quelling the protests.
The managing director of the International Monetary Fund, Kristalina Georgieva, told The Associated Press in an interview that it is time for China to move away from massive lockdowns toward a more targeted approach to fighting COVID outbreaks.
Georgieva called for a “recalibration” of China’s tough zero-COVID approach to isolate every case “exactly because of the impact it has on both people and on the economy.”
But China’s Foreign Ministry defended the sweeping controls on Tuesday, saying the government is trying to “provide maximum protection to people’s lives and health while minimizing the COVID impact on social and economic development.”
Xi’s zero-COVID policy has sharply limited infections through stringent lockdowns that have disrupted everyday life in the country of 1.4 billion people. But protests erupting at locations around the country appear to indicate that many Chinese have grown weary of the lengthy quarantines and widespread testing.
A Shanghai resident who participated in a protest in the city told VOA that at the start of COVID lockdowns, people saw the government’s actions as rational, but that those feelings changed as restrictions remained in place.
“For example, they told you the lockdown’s number of days. Initially they said three days,” they said. “Then after three days, it was another three days, and then three more days afterwards. It was in May that people truly realized that this was not rational, not normal.”
Daniel Russel, vice president for international security and diplomacy at the Asia Society Policy Institute and a former U.S. assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, told VOA that the protests are significant in that they involve people from multiple cities and various walks of life going beyond initial demonstrations in response to a fatal fire in the western Xinjiang region to protest the zero-COVID strategy and the country’s ruling party.
“This shows that Zero-COVID created a negative shared experience of heavy-handed and intrusive Party control that united people across geographic and socioeconomic boundaries,” Russel said via email.
Authorities said the fire last week in the city of Urumqi killed 10 people.
A witness to the fire told VOA on Monday that firefighters had difficulty entering the building because of the government’s anti-COVID policies.
“The fire exit door on the top floor was locked. Then they came down using the elevator to the first floor,” the witness, a Uyghur who asked to remain anonymous fearing Chinese government retaliation, told VOA.
“Unfortunately, that exit was also locked by the government officials because of the mask.”
People in Xinjiang use the word “mask” to refer to the Chinese government’s zero- COVID policy.
China’s government denies that firefighters had any difficulty accessing the building and has accused “forces with ulterior motives” for linking the fire to COVID-19 measures.
The Beijing city government did not mention the fire on Monday as it said it would no longer set up gates to block people from entering apartment compounds where infections have been found.
In addition to easing the rules in Beijing, officials in Guangzhou, the southern manufacturing and trade metropolis that is the biggest hot spot in China’s latest wave of infections, said some residents will no longer be required to undergo mass testing.
Officials in Urumqi and another city in the Xinjiang region in the northwest said markets and other businesses in areas deemed at low risk of infection would reopen this week, and public bus service would resume.
The zero-COVID policy aims to isolate every infected person and has helped China keep its case numbers, as a percentage of its overall population, lower than those in the United States. As a result, millions of Chinese have been confined to their homes for up to four months.
Russel told VOA that Xi is unlikely to relent on his overall COVID-19 strategy, and while there may be promises of fine-tuning the system, the Chinese leader is likely to turn to “tech-enhanced repressive state power to frighten would-be demonstrators.”
“Without an effective Chinese vaccine and high rates of inoculation, relaxing controls would lead to COVID overwhelming China’s inadequate public healthcare system. Xi Jinping has made the Party’s ‘superior handling’ of COVID a major political achievement and simply cannot walk that back.”
The ruling party’s People’s Daily newspaper called for the anti-coronavirus strategy to be carried out effectively, indicating Xi’s government has no plans to change course.
“Facts have fully proved that each version of the prevention and control plan has withstood the test of practice,” a People’s Daily commentator wrote.
In Hong Kong Monday evening, students at the Chinese University held a small-scale vigil to show support for protesters on the mainland.
Over the weekend, protesters shouted, “Lift the lockdown!” in a city in China’s western region, while across the country in Shanghai, the financial center, protesters held up blank sheets of white paper as a quiet show of dissent.
Others in Shanghai chanted, “Xi Jinping! Step down! CCP! Step down!” referring to the Communist Party. Police detained dozens of protesters, driving them away in police vans and buses, although the exact number was not clear.
At Peking University in Beijing, graffiti read, “We don’t want lockdown or control; we want freedom. We don’t want PCR testing; we want to eat.”
US reaction to China lockdowns
In Washington, the White House said the Biden administration supported peaceful protests.
“Whether it’s the people protesting in Iran or China or anywhere else around the world, nothing has changed about the president’s firm belief in the power of democracy and democratic institutions and how important that is,” National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said.
VOA’s Mandarin Service contributed to this report.